LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas. – Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday effectively approved new legislation that would allow employees to waive COVID-19 vaccine requirements, a move by Republicans to challenge federal vaccine requirements.
Hutchinson allowed the measure to become law without his signature, despite his concerns about the impact it would have on businesses in the state. The new law will come into force only at the beginning of next year.
In Arkansas, a bill becomes law after it lies on the governor’s desk for five days without action. Governors have traditionally used this approach to express opposition to legislation without prompting a veto fight with the Legislature.
Hutchinson said the amount of time before the waiver law goes into effect gives the state more time to weigh its business impact and file any legal action.
But he also called the proposal unnecessary and counterproductive.
“The discussion of these bills hurt our goal of increasing vaccinations in Arkansas,” he told reporters.
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The measure requires employers to allow workers to waive COVID-19 vaccine requirements if they get weekly testing or can prove they have antibodies to the virus. Health officials said antibody tests should not be used to assess immunity against coronavirus and that people who have recovered from COVID-19 should still be vaccinated.
The bill was passed primarily in response to President Joe Biden’s decree that businesses with more than 100 employees require workers to be vaccinated or tested weekly.
“I think it’s a good balance that gives employer and employee good protection,” said Republican Senator Kim Hammer, who sponsored the law.
Republicans in other states have also taken steps to block or undermine Biden’s mandate. In neighboring Texas, Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting private companies and other organizations from demanding the vaccine. Calls for special legislative sessions to counter vaccine requirements have also been made in Wyoming, Kansas and South Dakota.
Even before Biden’s order, some of Arkansas’ largest employers, such as Walmart in Bentonville, required some or all of their employees to be vaccinated. This year, Hutchinson signed into law prohibiting state and local governments from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations.
Business groups criticized the waiver, saying it would itself be a mandate for the business, forcing companies to choose between breaking state or federal law. Hospital officials said the move could also jeopardize funding for Medicare and Medicaid health facilities.
“The solution is not for employers to be caught between the federal government and the state government,” said Hutchinson, who criticized Biden’s vaccine order. “Employers need freedom to protect their employees and clients, and the government should not interfere with that freedom through mandates.”
The new state law does not include any fines or penalties for businesses that do not comply with it. Companies that fail to comply with a federal order can face fines of up to $ 13,600 for a violation.
Randy Zuck, president of the state Chamber of Commerce, said the new Arkansas law would create difficulties for businesses, but he expected them to eventually follow federal orders.
“People will comply with any federal regulations because (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) the penalties are dire, and the consequences or potential penalties for healthcare businesses are even greater,” he said.
The refusal measure was approved by the Legislature during a meeting that focused on redistributing congressional constituencies, but instead was dominated by efforts to limit or ban vaccine requirements. A separate measure, rejected by lawmakers last week, barred businesses from requiring employees to report if they had been vaccinated.
Proponents of these measures have left open the opportunity to try again when the Legislature meets later this month for a special meeting on tax cuts.