Proposed Iowa bill would defy federal COVID-19 regulations

Syringes of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are seen at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. (The Gazette)

DES MOINES — A proposed Iowa bill seeking to undermine potential federal regulations that would require COVID-19 vaccinations or testing for businesses could put Iowa’s state-run Occupational Safety and Health Administration plan in jeopardy.

The bill, Senate File 45, passed a subcommittee on Tuesday. Republican Sens. Dennis Guth, of Klemme, and Tim Kraayenbrink, of Fort Dodge, voted for it, while Sen. Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo, voted against it.

The bill would prohibit the state’s labor commissioner from enforcing a federal occupational health and safety regulation requiring employers to do three things:

• Determine whether or not an employee or prospective employee has received a COVID-19 vaccine;

• Determine whether or not an employee or prospective employee has received a test for current or past COVID-19 infection or ask about the results of a test;

• Test employees or prospective employees for current or past COVID-19 infections.

At present, there are no OSHA regulations in place requiring vaccines or testing. A 2021 rule requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to require vaccinations or weekly testing was struck down last year by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Iowa is one of several states with a state-administered OSHA plan, and representatives for Iowa’s labor division, business leaders and labor leaders warned the bill could compromise that plan.

If the federal OSHA finds Iowa OSHA not in compliance with federal standards, it could scrap the Iowa plan and take over administering Iowa’s occupational safety rules, they said.

J.D. Davis, vice president for public policy at the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, said working with federal regulators is more cumbersome than working with state regulators, and he’d prefer to see the program remain in state hands.

“That’s important, especially when we’re investigating accidents or having inspections, that you have somebody that’s responsive and close,” he said. “It also allows you to get to know the personalities that are doing the investigations.”

While Guth recommended passage, he said he wanted to do more research into the conflict between federal and state OSHA regulators before taking it up in a committee.

“We won’t be in a rush to get this to committee right away. We’ll take a little bit of time doing that,” he said.

The bill would need to go to a vote in the Workforce Committee before being taken up in a floor vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to ever be taken up in committee. It could just die,” Guth added in an interview after the meeting.

Dotzler said Iowa should follow federal regulations regarding COVID-19 safety. He also said he was concerned with the way Iowa OSHA is run.

“It’s important as a society that we remain healthy, and the only way we’re going to remain healthy is if we believe in science and what is coming out of the disease control experts in the field,” he said.

The Legislature has taken similar measures to limit vaccination requirements since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Laws are in place blocking so-called vaccine passports and allowing employees to submit waivers for vaccine mandates and collect unemployment benefits if they are fired for not receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

A bill that would have prohibited all businesses from requiring vaccination, testing and mask-wearing for employees failed last year when Republicans did not muster the votes to pass it.

OSHA is finalizing a permanent COVID-19 rule for health care settings, according to Bloomberg Law. OSHA has not revealed the text of the rule.

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