Business leaders warned state senators Monday that legislation they’re drafting to fight a federal vaccine mandate could create chaos for airline services, hospitals, ski resorts, railroads, tech companies and other employers already on fragile footing from the pandemic.
On the other side of the debate, Wyoming residents in favor of the draft bills urged lawmakers to protect personal liberties by shielding individuals from being required to get a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort President Mary Kate Buckley joined business leaders warning against passing House Bills 1001 and 1002, which are being discussed as part of a special legislative session in Cheyenne.
As originally proposed, HB1001 would have barred Wyoming employers from requiring a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment unless certain conditions were met, such as alternative accommodations, or it would jeopardize a business. HB1002 was generally aimed at prohibiting enforcement of vaccine mandates and supports the governor’s legal fight against the federal vaccine mandate.
On Monday, Buckley told lawmakers that the resort employs more than 500 people year-round and 1,500 seasonal workers in winter.
“Following the law is very important to me as a leader,” Buckley said. “Our federal contract status is critical to our business, and we want to do everything we can to follow federal law, as well as Wyoming law, as we carry out our business.”
As drafted, she said the two bills would put her between conflicting state and federal laws, creating uncertainty and financial risk. She also warned that the Jackson Hole Airport, which operates on federal land, could be in a similar “no-win situation.”
Union Pacific Railroad’s Nathan Anderson asked for an amendment to HB1001 to exempt federal contractors like his company from the proposed law to avoid costly lawsuits and confusion among the railroad company’s 800-plus Wyoming employees.
“Our supply chain in the nation has been greatly impacted,” Anderson said. “This amendment helps to further move us toward a safer operating environment and a recovery of our supply chain system.”
Ultimately, the committee voted 3-2 to send HB1001 to the floor of the Senate with Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, and Sen. Drew Perkins, a Natrona County Republican, voting against it. The committee voted 5-0 to send HB1002 to the floor.
Just as business leaders urged senators to kill or water down the bills, individuals testified passionately in favor of allowing employees to say no to vaccines. Despite the deluge of testimony from businesses, other advocates wanted lawmakers to stay focused on individual liberties.
Hallie Rohrbach, representing Wyoming Medical Freedom Advocates, said her group includes more than 850 Wyoming residents, including many health care workers. Her group supports both bills, she told lawmakers. Rohrbach responded directly to testimony from businesses.
“I think we’re getting a little bit carried away on the dollars and cents and political moves,” she said, “and businesses trying to look out for themselves and prevent any inconvenience and accountability rather than focusing on the science and the freedom of the people.”
Wyoming Hospital Association President and Leading Age Wyoming Executive Director Eric Boley encouraged lawmakers to fight federal vaccine mandates in court. But he cautioned lawmakers that Wyoming hospitals and nursing homes could be put out of business if their federal funding is put in jeopardy. In Wyoming, nursing homes get about 85% of their funding from the federal government while hospitals rely on federal funds for about 60% of their budgets, hospital officials testified.
Wyoming Business Alliance President Cindy DeLancey said she was speaking for more than 400 member businesses in industries including extraction, hospitality, agriculture, construction and digital technology. DeLancey said the alliance stood in “strong opposition” to the bills with not a single member seeking to support them.
“These bill drafts are bad for business, period,” she told the Senate committee.
The Senate then convened Monday afternoon to take up the bills and was still working on the draft legislation as of press time.
Some lawmakers were intensely focused on ensuring the bills didn’t interfere with Wyoming’s legal case fighting President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate. Eighteen states, including Wyoming, filed three separate lawsuits Friday to stop Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal contractors, arguing that the requirement violates federal law.
— Billy Arnold and the Associated Press contributed to this article.