Iowa and federal vaccine mandate laws may not conflict

State legislators have passed a bill giving Iowans the option to refuse employer-mandated COVID-19 vaccines with a health or religious exemption.
Published: Oct. 29, 2021 at 4:38 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Iowa’s new bill aimed at stopping COVID-19 vaccine mandates may not conflict with an expected federal mandate, according to a legal expert.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed the new vaccine mandate law Friday, putting it in effect immediately.

The law does not ban vaccine mandates but instead makes it easier for workers to get religious or medical exemptions - all an employee needs to do is give their boss a note. It also punishes employers for firing unvaccinated workers by making those workers eligible for unemployment benefits, which costs the business more money.

President Biden has promised a multi-pronged federal vaccine mandate, though it has not been officially published yet. That federal mandate would make it an OSHA violation to not require the vaccine or testing for unvaccinated workers in any company with more than 100 employees.

President Biden also said health facilities that receive Medicaid benefits would lose them without a vaccine requirement for staff and federal contractors not requiring the vaccine would lose government contracts.

Denise Hill, Associate Professor of Practice in Public Administration at Drake University, says federal law typically trumps state law. That’s why she says legally challenges, like the one Iowa joined Friday, to the federal vaccine mandate are likely to fail.

But that federal order may not conflict with the new Iowa law. That’s because Iowa’s law does not ban vaccine requirements. In fact, she points out Iowa’s law requiring companies to accept exemptions matches well with federal law.

“At the federal level, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, we have protections for people who have disabilities,” Hill said. “And in the case of vaccinations that has been a recognized exception all the way back to Small Pox in the early 1900′s.”

Hill said there is enough leeway for employers in both the federal mandate and the state law to let them comply with both, for example, if an employer accommodates an exemption by requiring testing for unvaccinated workers.

The law could face legal challenges from employees who claim the law creates unsafe working environments for people with compromised immune systems but Hill said that, too, isn’t simple.

“They would have to have a party who is affected negatively, so they would need someone who could bring a suit to demonstrate they have potential harm,” Hill explained.

However, Hill said Iowa’s law creates two potentially problematic issues.

First, Hill said, it creates ambiguity in exemptions. The new state law does not let businesses have discretion in what they accept as an exemption to a workplace mandate. Hill says exemptions are meant for only those with legitimate reasons not to comply with a mandate. She says that could set a bad precedent.

“Part of the concern is that people will move from having an exception based on genuine reasons,” Hill said. “And instead we’ll have more of a contextual reason because they don’t want to be vaccinated, they don’t agree with mandates and these people will receive unemployment.”

Hill also said the Iowa law creates an economic concern by inserting the state legislature into how a business operates and that might scare away businesses scared of government intervention.

“It says that Iowa lawmakers and the Governor, if they don’t agree with an employer, are willing to intervene and essentially punish them by requiring them to pay for unemployment,” Hill said.

Ultimately, many companies may decide to follow a federal mandate and risk punishment under state law. Hill said the reason is because the fines from OSHA of nearly $14,000, losing Medicaid funding, or losing a government contract is likely more costly than paying more for unemployment insurance.

“If your business wants to stay afloat you cannot afford to not comply with the federal law,” Hill said. “When you do a cost-benefit analysis for most employers they are probably in a better position to comply.”

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