House defeats COVID privacy bill

Arkansas State Capitol (Source: KAIT)
Arkansas State Capitol (Source: KAIT)
Published: Oct. 7, 2021 at 6:06 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 8, 2021 at 3:28 PM CDT
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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KAIT) - The Arkansas House on Friday defeated a Senate bill that sponsors say would have stopped businesses from requiring employees to say if they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

The House voted 41-46 on SB731, sponsored by Sen. Bob Ballinger (R-Ozark).

During debate Friday, the bill was referred to the House Rules Committee, then sent back to the House floor for debate.

Ballinger’s bill would have created a right to privacy on the issue, with supporters saying the legislation was needed to protect against people losing their jobs.

However, opponents said on the House floor Friday that the bill would have a major impact on business including the state’s healthcare industry and hospitals.

On Thursday, the bill was approved by the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.

Sen. Ballinger told the committee he was attempting to “protect the little guy” with his bill, which was approved 22-11 in the state Senate Thursday.

Under the bill, an individual would have the right to decide whether or not to disclose their vaccination status in an employment setting.

Also, a person cannot be retaliated against for exercising their right to privacy and can seek civil damages under the Arkansas Civil Rights Act if they are injured by an employer in a situation.

Ballinger said during the committee meeting he had heard from people in recent weeks about the issue. He said the people provided compelling stories about losing their jobs and facing financial problems due to business mandates on the issue.

Several committee members at the Thursday meeting, including Rep. Michelle Gray (R-Melbourne) and Rep. Justin Boyd (R-Fort Smith) said the bill would create an unintended consequence by hurting the state’s hospitals including the financial impact of paying fines associated with the Arkansas Civil Rights Act, the receiving of Medicare and Medicaid funding and federal rules already in place.

However, Ballinger countered that any federal rule or mandate, including those proposed by President Biden earlier this year, would likely be challenged in federal court by either businesses or attorney generals around the country.

Arkansas Secretary of Commerce Mike Preston and Arkansas Chamber of Commerce official Randy Zook also spoke against the bill.

Preston said he believed the bill could create an undue burden on businesses that could locate in Arkansas, while Zook told the committee that he believed the bill was shredding “at-will” employment in the state when businesses are trying to hire employees.

Ballinger told the committee he believed that he had to present the bill to provide some protections for people who are terminated from a job when they go to reapply and would bar discrimination based on vaccination status.

Copyright 2021 KAIT. All rights reserved.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.