COLUMBIA — Only health care workers in South Carolina could be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 under a bill advancing in the state Senate that otherwise bars employers from issuing ultimatums.
The bill that advanced March 31 to the Senate floor prohibits employers from firing, suspending or demoting workers who won’t get a shot unless their job involves caring for or treating seniors or others with underlying medical problems.
“If they work around a vulnerable population, you can require vaccination,” Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said in explaining the compromise he helped craft.
“But if it’s just an average employer that has no health-related business, you can’t terminate somebody for not taking a vaccine,” he added.
As initially proposed by Sen. Tom Corbin, R-Travelers Rest, the legislation stated no one “may be compelled” to get a COVID-19 vaccination, and no employer could punish a worker in any way for opting not to get one.
“We’ve really tried to narrow it down from where it was,” Hutto said, adding that the original version potentially had far-reaching consequences.
“If the seniors’ Sunday school class wants to the take the church bus to Golden Corral and they say, ‘Only people with vaccines can ride the bus,’ that ought to be a decision they can make,” he said.
The few voting “no” included Sen. Marlon Kimpson, who said he worried about the message it sends since passage could be seen as validating people’s hesitation or refusal to get vaccinated.
“Let’s not make a public policy statement that is inconsistent with the body of medical data we have concerning COVID,” the Charleston Democrat said. “If we pass this legislation, it has the effect of doing more harm to the progress we’ve made as a state and nation.”
Kimpson questioned whether it’s even a problem.
While there is no state mandate, legislators have heard from workers who were told “‘we want you to get the vaccine, and if you don’t, we’ll pursue adverse actions, whether suspension or demotion,'” Hutto said, adding he couldn’t name specific companies. “It is a real potential threat to some people’s jobs.”
Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Manning, said he worried businesses could be put in a tough spot with customers.
They “may have customers who say, ‘If your employees aren’t vaccinated, I won’t do business with you,’ ” he said. “People are in business to make money, and if they can’t require their employees to be vaccinated, employers are put between a rock and a hard place.”
While that’s impossible to address, Hutto said, the amended bill does make clear businesses are free to encourage their employees to get a shot and offer incentives to do so, such as time off on the day of their appointment.
The changes resulted in the state Chamber of Commerce removing its opposition to the measure.
Business advocates feared earlier language barring discrimination of workers who don’t get shots could have inadvertently outlawed incentives to workers who do.
While the “vast majority of businesses in our state” are not considering a mandate, many could offer perks for getting a COVID-19 vaccine shot, including paid time off, said Swati Patel, interim chief executive of the state Chamber of Commerce.
“We know that the more our citizens get vaccinated, the quicker our economy will fully recover,” she said.
The S.C. Hospital Association is not aware of any hospital requiring its employees to get vaccinated but applauded the compromise allowing it, said spokesman Schipp Ames.
“Hospitals have an important responsibility to create the safest possible environment for the patients and communities they serve,” he said, adding that the amendment gives “hospitals the flexibility they need to protect patients and employees from COVID-19.”
The vote comes a week after the House rejected proposals to ban public employers — including schools, colleges, agencies and local governments — from crafting any policy making COVID-19 vaccination a condition of employment or services.
Those proposals attempted unsuccessfully to insert the bans into the House’s $10 billion state budget plan.
House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, helped defeat the idea, arguing the budget is no place for a ban that could ultimately endanger lives in health care facilities.
The vote by the Senate Medical Affairs Committee also came on the day eligibility for vaccines opened to those 16 and older in South Carolina.
Younger children can’t get a shot yet because the vaccines weren’t tested on them in the trials leading to their federal authorization. Of the three vaccines authorized so far, only the two-shot Pfizer brand can be given to 16- and 17-year-olds.
So far, about 17 percent of all eligible South Carolinians have completed the vaccination process, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. Health officials have said a full return to normalcy will require at least 70 percent of adults getting vaccinated.
While supply remains limited, “soon in a matter of weeks we believe anyone and everyone who wants their shot will be able to get one” without waiting long, if at all, for an appointment, said Nick Davidson, DHEC’s deputy public health director.
“We need to get many, many more people vaccinated,” he told reporters March 31. “Please, please, please get yourself vaccinated.”