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North Dakota lawmakers pass bill to limit employer-issued vaccine mandates

Under the bill sponsored by Hurdsfield Republican Rep. Robin Weisz, employers who require the COVID-19 vaccine for workers will have to offer a wide range of opt-outs, including allowing employees to regularly test for COVID-19, prove they have antibodies built up or claim medical, religious or philosophical exemptions.

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North Dakota Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, speaks about his bill on COVID-19 vaccine mandates during a committee hearing on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Both houses of the North Dakota Legislature and Gov. Doug Burgum have approved a bill that will give workers several ways to evade employer-ordered COVID-19 vaccine mandates, but exceptions outlined in the bill allow certain businesses to issue tighter inoculation requirements.

The House voted 80-11 on Thursday, Nov. 11, and the Senate voted 33-14 on Friday to pass the bill. Both votes were mostly along party lines with a handful of moderate Republicans joining Democrats in dissent to the legislation. Burgum signed the bill Friday night, making it law upon filing with Secretary of State Al Jaeger.

Under the bill sponsored by Hurdsfield Republican Rep. Robin Weisz, employers who require the COVID-19 vaccine for workers will have to offer a wide range of opt-outs, including allowing employees to regularly test for COVID-19, prove they have antibodies built up or claim medical, religious or philosophical exemptions.

However, the legislation does not apply to employers if they are required to comply with federal vaccine mandates, which could include hospitals, nursing homes, federal contractors and businesses with more than 100 workers. North Dakota has joined three lawsuits against President Joe Biden in an attempt to strike down COVID-19 vaccine mandates his administration has imposed on health care workers, federal contractors and large businesses.

As Bismarck Republican Sen. Dick Dever put it, the legislation makes a statement against vaccine requirements, but it likely won't affect most North Dakota workers unless the courts strike down the Biden administration's vaccine mandates.

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For some lawmakers, the bill didn't go far enough in taking on perceived federal overreach. Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, said the proposal is "the least we can do" to safeguard individual liberties.

Other legislators said the bill's development was rushed, and the final product fails to protect North Dakotans against a deadly disease that has played a role in pushing the state's hospitals to its limits . Fargo Republican Sen. Jim Roers, who owns a large construction company, said the bill makes it hard to provide adequate workforce safety by kicking the teeth out of any vaccine mandates.

The proposal also narrows the scope of legislation passed earlier this year , barring businesses from rejecting customers due to their COVID-19 vaccination status. The bill says state and local government entities can't require residents to disclose their vaccination or antibody status, either, except for public colleges, prisons, jails, the state hospital and a public health units.

Additionally, the legislation will bar the state Department of Health from creating an electronic QR code that would summon a vaccination card on a cellphone.

Most of the bill is set up to automatically come off the books in August 2023.

The bill's rapid progression through the legislative pipeline comes days after hundreds of demonstrators took to the Capitol lawn to protest vaccine mandates. Weisz said after the bill passed the House that it's not perfect but provides a good compromise between employers' rights to regulate their workplaces and workers' rights to have a job without being "locked out" because of their vaccination status.

1511 by Jeremy Turley on Scribd

The House also killed a separate bill that mirrors Montana legislation that bans employer-issued mandates.

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In an unrelated action, both chambers and Burgum approved a bill that prohibits licensing boards from taking disciplinary action against pharmacists and other medical workers who prescribe ivermectin for the off-label treatment of COVID-19. After an outcry from hospitals and pharmacists, a panel of lawmakers gutted an original bill to require prescribers to dole out drugs for off-label uses.

Ivermectin, a drug used to prevent parasitic worms, has increasingly been used as treatment for COVID-19 despite a lack of research suggesting that it helps fight the disease.

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