The first day of Florida legislature’s special session ended on a positive note for Gov. Ron DeSantis as all four bills that would restrict state and federal pandemic-related requirements for workers were passed through committees and could be ready for a vote on Nov. 17.
Last month DeSantis called for the session to address vaccine mandates imposed by the Biden administration, and to firm up the Florida Parents Bill of Rights.
Lawmakers passed several bills designed to limit the impact of federal vaccine mandates on Floridians.
Seven Republicans voted for and four Democrats against a bill that would ban local governments from requiring vaccine mandates.
It would, however, allow private companies to require employees to get vaccinated against the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus if they allowed for exemptions for medical, religious and natural immunity.
Passing the measures did not come without Democrats expressing their concern for the future of businesses.
State Rep. Dotie Joseph (D) said, “I’m concerned because I don’t want individuals who are employers, whether they are private of public, to get caught in a political crossfire.”
The sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Danny Burgess (R) defended it and said the legislation was “necessary to protect workers”—including essential frontline health care and emergency personnel who “worked throughout the pandemic”—from being fired for refusing the vaccine.
“We’re villainizing the very people we said were heroes,” Burgess said during the committee meeting.
State Sen. Tina Polsky (D) was concerned about “abuse of the religious exemption” and had proposed three amendments to the bill that would have allowed employers to ask for supporting documentation, such as from a clergy member or religious institution.
Polsky said, “without proper documentation, the exemption would be broad as to allow workers to abuse it.”
“If they’re using the religious exemption it has to be tied to a religious belief,” she said during committee meeting. “I don’t think just saying it makes it so.”
Burgess noted that the religious exemption was “not too broad” and said the bill expires in June 2023.
He added workers could be “subject to intimidation” if employers were allowed to “investigate their religious beliefs.”
“Questioning an employee’s religious beliefs is a slippery slope,” he said.
All three amendments were voted down with all committee members voting along party lines.
The bill also addresses penalties for not following the law.
Fines of up to $10,000 could be levied against companies with fewer than 100 employees that require vaccinations without exemptions, or that do not accept a valid exemption.
For larger businesses with more than 100 workers, the fines could go as high as $50,000 per violation.
The bill will allow for $5 million to be set aside for the attorney general’s office to conduct investigations for workers who file complaints if they are denied an exemption. Businesses can avoid a fine if they reinstate the employee while under an investigation.
A separate bill would if passed exempt from public records law information gathered during an investigation of a violation. The measure was designed to protect workers’ medical information and shield any company that is being investigated from public exposure.
Comments were heard from public speakers who were for and against the bill.
Tampa resident and flight attendant, Lisa Williams who represented the 2,000 members of Airline Employees for Health Freedom told the committee, “We are not anti-vaccine, we are anti-mandate.”
The group maintains that their Title VII rights are being violated by the airline they work for and have filed a lawsuit against their employer.
Williams stated she and some of her other co-workers who had to take leave because of illness from the vaccine are being denied workman’s compensation and have suffered financial hardships and implored the committee to “stop the madness.”
The American Cancer Society, Cancer Action Network, American Lung Association and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society released a statement that was read during the committee meeting and said the bills would “harm those with illnesses that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.”
“Vaccine requirements help protect immunosuppressed patients, including kids, and blocking business and organizations as well as cities and towns from enacting these policies jeopardizes the health of patients and their families and silences their voices,” the statement read.
A pair of bills would require the governor’s office to plan for the state to set up its own workplace safety agency to supersede the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for companies with over 100 employees was promulgated via an OSHA rule which was blocked by a federal judge.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) called the OSHA rule “500 pages of bureaucracy run amok.”
Simpson told the committee, “What we don’t want to do is set up an opportunity for future presidents to weaponize cabinet agencies that will come in and do unconstitutional things.”