By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror
PHOENIX — Employers could be forced to fork out a year’s wages as reparations to employees whose religious exemptions from a company’s COVID-19 vaccination policy were denied.
The Arizona House of Representatives on Monday gave preliminary approval to House Bill 2198, which requires employers to pay a lump sum equal to the employee’s annual wages upon severance or in a dozen monthly installments unless they rehire them at the same or similar position with an accommodation for their religious exemption request. Accommodations can include social distancing, masking, remote work or weekly testing.
The Arizona Civil Rights Act and the federal Civil Rights Act each direct employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who request them. While it’s difficult to disprove a religious belief, employers are allowed to ask for supporting information to verify the claim and may deny it if none is provided, or if the belief does not reasonably conflict with the requirement. If the accommodation causes the business undue hardship, the employer may also legally deny it.
Religious exemptions do not include objections to the vaccine on philosophical or partisan grounds. An October 2021 poll found that as much as 60% of the unvaccinated population identified as Republican.
Several Republican legislative proposals have been introduced to shore up Arizonans’ objections to COVID-19 mitigation protocols like masking and vaccine mandates. A measure to fine employers mandating the vaccine up to $500,000 if the employee later develops a related injury is awaiting debate by the full House.
Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, questioned the logic of the HB2198, considering that there’s already a state safety net available for people who are fired in unemployment benefits.
The year’s wages required by this bill are in addition to any unemployment the terminated employee might pursue. The bill’s sponsor, Phoenix Republican Rep. Steve Kaiser, said vaccines may be required industry-wide in some cases — like in the healthcare field — and the slighted employees need time to find a more accommodating post. In the end, the situation is very different from a traditional termination, he claimed, because the employer violated the Civil Rights Act by denying the exemption.
This explanation was unsatisfactory for Cook, who said it would then fall under the purview of the courts.
“Are we, as a legislature, trying to circumvent the court system and reward a non-litigated compensation fee?” he asked.
Kaiser responded that suing takes time and money, both resources which companies have in abundance but individuals don’t. The other option would be to file a civil rights violation with the Attorney General’s Office, which is also a lengthy process, especially because the office has received thousands of similar complaints, he claimed.
“The role of the government is to protect individual liberties. Individual liberties can be violated by the government, can be violated by business, and can be violated by individuals. Our job as legislators is to protect individual liberties, and this bill does that,” he said.
Cook asked how the bill fits in with Arizona’s permissive employment laws, which allow employers to fire employees without cause.
“They do not have the right to fire you if you filed a religious exemption,” Kaiser shot back.
State statute advises employers to accommodate religious exemption requests unless it causes the business undue hardship or more than a de minimis cost — a much less stringent guideline.
HB2198 cleared floor debate in the House, but has not yet received a vote by the full chamber.
Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.