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Politics, Elections and Government

Missouri Business Groups Protest Biden's Vaccine Mandate, While State Threatens A Lawsuit

 Detractors of the COVID-19 vaccine hold up signs during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Sept. 15, 2021. The committee heard from representatives of business organizations about President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate.
Detractors of the COVID-19 vaccine hold up signs during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee on Sept. 15, 2021. The committee heard from representatives of business organizations about President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate.

Legal action from Attorney General Eric Schmitt's office may be the route Missouri takes as opposed to passing legislation to fight vaccine mandates.

Representatives of Missouri’s business community criticized President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate on Wednesday during a House committee hearing — the first of what could be many legislative inquiries on the subject that’s galvanized GOP legislators.

While some lawmakers want Gov. Mike Parson to call a special session to combat Biden’s proposal, the governor has indicated that legal action may be the route the state takes as opposed to legislation.

Last week, Biden announced he was asking the Department of Labor to come up with a Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule for businesses of 100 workers or more. The plan was to require employees to get vaccinated or face periodic testing. Companies that don’t follow that plan could face fines.

Missouri Republicans have roundly criticized that proposal. And during a hearing Wednesday of the House Judiciary Committee, several representatives of business groups also expressed opposition to the idea.

“The Missouri Chamber does indeed believe that the COVID-19 vaccination is the pathway to full economic recovery,” said Kara Corches of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. “We believe that the Biden administration’s approach on testing and vaccinations is the wrong approach for businesses and a severe governmental overreach.”

Each of the business group representatives stressed that they were in favor of businesses issuing vaccine mandates without coercion from a governmental agency. But Ray McCarty of Associated Industries of Missouri said that a governmental mandate for businesses over 100 people could lead to unintended consequences around staffing.

“This is a very real problem right now — being able to find employees who can take jobs that we have open,” McCarty said. “It’s been a problem before COVID-19. It’s much more pronounced now. We believe employers should be able to make that business decision if they feel like they want to require vaccines for their employees or not. And if they do require the vaccines, they’ll assume some risk that goes along with that.”

The federal government announced a vaccine mandate for nursing homes earlier this year. Nikki Strong of the Missouri Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes across the state, said that she heard from countless nursing homes about how a mandate would prompt people to quit — and in turn leave the facilities short staffed.

When the testing mandate came down, we started losing employees very quickly,” Strong said. “They left and went to other industries.”

During an exchange with Strong, state Rep. Ian Mackey, D-Richmond Heights, questioned whether people who live in nursing homes wanted staff to be vaccinated.

“It's great that you surveyed your staff members,” Mackey said. “I’m curious what residents think of this. I’m curious what elderly, at-risk populations, who we know have a much greater risk of this pandemic of dying, what they think.”

In response, Strong said approximately 85% of the residents in long term care facilities have been vaccinated. And approximately 40% of the staff have gotten the COVID-19 shot.

“We are one of the lowest in the country on uptake of our staff,” Strong said. “This goes beyond ‘should you take the vaccine or should you not take the vaccine.’ The residents who have chosen to take the vaccine have protected themselves. We’re seeing that in the numbers.

“The point of my testimony today is to give you the realistic impact that this is going to have on the workforce in the nursing homes,” she added. “And it’s not just nursing homes. It’s the health care industry as a whole.”

 Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announces a potential settlement in a lawsuit against manufacturers and distributors of addictive opioid painkillers on Thursday, July 22, 2021.

What's next?

Lawmakers have asked Parson to call a special session as a way to combat Biden’s vaccine mandate plan. On Tuesday, House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, sent a letter to Biden demanding that the president provide legal justification for the move.

“This proposed vaccine mandate is a clear overreach of federal authority and something we will fight wholeheartedly to defend the freedoms of our citizens,” Vescovo wrote.

Whether that will actually happen remains to be seen. Parson indicated in a statement last week that he was aligning his office’s resources with Attorney General Eric Schmitt to prepare for a lawsuit whenever the Biden plan comes forward.

And it’s an open question whether the state legislature can pass any law that would stretch beyond symbolism to counteract a regulation from a federal agency like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Some legal experts believe that if Biden’s administration can prove that regulation is needed to effectively mitigate a grave danger in the workforce, it could pass legal muster.

In any case, several Republican lawmakers who testified before the committee contended that only states and not the federal government had the power to issue a vaccine requirement.

“And when the state gets in the business of doing that, having a goal without considering individual medical considerations, it makes a person a means to end rather than an end onto themselves,” said state Rep. Bill Hardwick, R-Pulaski County.

State Rep. Robbie Sauls, who like Hardwick is a member of the U.S. military, noted that he’s required to take numerous vaccinations as a condition of enlistment. And he added that members of the military will have to take the COVID-19 vaccine.

“What are your thoughts on that?” asked Sauls, D-Independence.

Hardwick said that he had to do pushups after getting numerous vaccination shots, and recalled how blood came out of his arms during that exercise.

“I was OK doing that, because I was willing to sacrifice my humanity, even though it was a dehumanizing experience, for my country so that other people could have freedom,” said Hardwick, adding that he also took a penicillin shot that may not have been acceptable to people who were allergic to the drug.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Dave Evans, R-West Plains, said he planned to hold more committee hearings on the issue of Biden’s vaccine mandates in the coming weeks.

Anti-vaccine mandate rally

More than 100 protesters attended a rally decrying federal vaccine mandates at the statehouse Wednesday morning.

Many condemned the government for pushing what they described as a vaccine that was rushed through the federal approval process.

“Mass vaccination is being pushed as the ultimate and sole solution to the pandemic,” said Britany Hartzell, who leads the group Take A Stand Now Missouri. “Not just for those who would typically have been considered high-risk like the elderly and the immunocompromised, but for everyone. Why?”

Doctors and health officials say the vaccine has been widely tested in rigorous clinical trials and has few side effects. It is highly effective at keeping people from getting so sick they need to visit the hospital and preventing death.

But Sen. Bill Eigel, R-St. Charles, told the crowd that people should have the right to make their own medical decisions and called for lawmakers to prohibit mandated vaccinations.

“Right now, the legislature could pass a mandate to prohibit anyone from telling you what to inject into your bodies,” he said. “We can also pass a restriction from anybody, government or otherwise, from telling you to produce proof that you have gotten some sort of vaccination. We’re not going to wait around while Washington tramples our constitutional freedoms.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

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