LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday effectively passed a new law that will allow employees to choose not to comply with COVID-19 vaccine requirements, a move by fellow Republicans to challenge federal vaccine mandates.
Hutchinson allowed the measure to become law without his signature despite his concerns about the impact it will have on state-owned companies. The new law won’t go into effect until early next year.
In Arkansas, a bill becomes law after it sits on the governor’s desk for five days without any action. Governors have traditionally used that approach to voice their opposition to legislation without provoking a veto fight with the legislature.
Hutchinson said the amount of time before the opt-out law takes effect gives the state more time to weigh its impact on businesses and for court challenges to be filed.
But he also called the proposal unnecessary and counterproductive.
“The debate on these bills has been detrimental to our goal of increasing vaccination rates in Arkansas,” he told reporters.
Texas order reflects growing GOP hostility to vaccine mandates
The measure requires employers to allow workers to choose not to comply with the COVID-19 vaccine requirements if they are tested weekly or can show they have antibodies to the virus. Health officials have said that antibody tests should not be used to assess immunity to the coronavirus and that people who have recovered from COVID-19 still need to get vaccinated.
The bill came primarily in response to President Joe Biden’s order that companies with more than 100 employees require workers to be vaccinated or tested weekly.
“I think this is a good balance that gives the employer and the employee good protection,” said Republican Senator Kim Hammer, who sponsored the legislation.
Republicans in other states have also taken steps to block or undermine Biden’s term. In neighboring Texas, the governor. Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting private companies or other entities from requiring vaccines. Calls for special legislative sessions to counter vaccine requirements have also been heard in Wyoming, Kansas and South Dakota.
Even before Biden’s order, some of Arkansas’s biggest employers, like Bentonville-based Walmart, required some or all of their employees to be vaccinated. Hutchinson signed a law this year that prohibits state and local government from requiring COVID-19 vaccination.
Business groups have criticized the opt-out measure, saying that in itself it would be a mandate for companies, forcing companies to choose between violating state or federal law. Hospital officials have said the move could also jeopardize Medicare and Medicaid funding for health care facilities.
“The solution is not to put employers in a tight game between the federal government and the state government,” said Hutchinson, who has criticized Biden’s vaccination order. “Employers need freedom to protect their employees and customers, and the government should not interfere with that freedom through mandates.”
The new state law does not include penalties or fines for companies that do not comply. Businesses that do not comply with the federal order could face fines of up to $ 13,600 per violation.
Randy Zook, president of the state Chamber of Commerce, said Arkansas’s new law will create difficulties for businesses, but he hoped they would eventually follow the federal order.
“People are going to abide by whatever federal rules they are because the penalties (from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) are horrendous and the implications or potential penalties for healthcare companies are even greater,” he said.
The opt-out measure was approved by the Legislature during a session intended to focus on congressional redistricting that was instead dominated by efforts to limit or ban vaccine requirements. A separate measure rejected by lawmakers last week would have barred companies from requiring employees to say whether they have been vaccinated.
Supporters of those measures have left open the possibility of trying again when the Legislature meets later this month for a special session on tax cuts.