Tennessee legislator to push bill banning employer-imposed mandates on COVID-19 vaccinations in special session

Republican Sen. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains, right, listens to proceedings on the Senate floor in Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday, April 4, 2013. (AP File Photo/Erik Schelzig)

NASHVILLE - A Tennessee Republican lawmaker says he will push for the state to follow Montana's lead and pass a law banning COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment here during a special legislative session that GOP House and Senate leaders intend to hold later this month.

"I like what Montana did. It's simple," Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, said in a Sunday phone interview. "It just says nobody in the state of Tennessee can discriminate based on their vaccine status. It's pretty simple. It's not complicated."

Under the law passed by Montana's Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year, requiring vaccines as a condition for private and public employment is treated as "discrimination" and a violation of the state's human rights laws.

Republicans here also point to Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order banning any entity in Texas, including private businesses, from requiring vaccinations for employees or customers. Abbott is asking Texas legislators to pass a law doing the same as his order expires next week.

Niceley's comments come as Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, are putting together a special session in an effort to block a number of COVID-19 mandates. The speakers have tentatively penciled in an Oct. 27 start date.

That came after Tennessee's Republican governor, Bill Lee, refused to accede to GOP members' request that he call them into special session to deal with COVID-related matters, as a number of Republicans object to vaccine requirements by businesses.

Among those employers is Chattanooga-based BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, which recently fired 19 front-line workers who refused to be vaccinated. Other issues likely to come up in the special session include school mask mandates and doing away with the independent status of six self-governed county health departments in Tennessee, including Hamilton County's.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has asked the U.S. Department of Labor and its Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency temporary standard directing businesses with more than 100 workers to require COVID-19 vaccinations or else weekly testing for the potentially deadly virus.

Sexton and McNally's envisioned COVID-19 special session is separate from the special session Lee himself has called which begins Monday. Lee is asking lawmakers to approve nearly $900 million for incentives, infrastructure work and a new technical college as part of the deal he struck with Ford Motor Co. and South Korean battery maker SK Innovation for a multibillion battery plant and assembly facility in rural West Tennessee. The companies plan to invest some $5.6 billion and employ more than 5,700 workers.

But Sexton told the Times Free Press earlier this month that "there are members who have stated that they may be opposed to the Ford incentive bill if they can't get some help for the parents and the families and the businesses back home" on COVID-19 issues.

A spokesman for McNally did not respond Sunday to a Times Free Press request for comment on Niceley's planned bill.

Hakeem: 'Irresponsibly mad'

Democrats were sharply critical not only of Niceley's effort but any special session devoted to legislation they say could dismantle Tennessee's response to the pandemic, which they said already falls short.

"My thought is it's irresponsibly mad," Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said Sunday in a phone interview. "What I mean by that is we have a health crisis where people are dying in both rural and urban areas. And the mindset they've [Republicans] displayed so far on doing everything they can to block the vaccine shots and so forth demonstrates their first priority is not the health and safety of our citizens but a political position."

Hakeem said, "I think lives have been unnecessarily lost because of the rhetoric that's been put forth basically by the Republican Party. They're echoing the sentiments of a vocal, noisy minority in the state of Tennessee."

Among legislative Republicans demanding new restrictions on COVID-19 vaccination requirements is Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville. In his tweeted response to a poster who asked about the status of legislation on banning vaccine mandates, including for students where there is no such mandate, Zachary responded with this: "Been drafted and ready to file, Tim!"

Republican lawmakers are also looking at banning school mask mandates.

"This special session is foolishness," Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said in a telephone interview.

The short notice for a special session amid a constantly changing and "bitterly divisive" pandemic doesn't bode well for the outcome, Yarbro said.

"There is no way that this sets up for intelligent and reasoned policy/rule making in any way whatsoever. This is a political release valve to placate the loudest and most extreme voices in the state," he said.

A number of Democratic legislators have cast doubts on state Republicans' ability to tell the federal government outright what to do, although the issue could find itself in federal courts.

Tennessee business reactions

On Friday, the Tennessee Business Roundtable said it opposes efforts to either require or prohibit COVID-19 rules for private employers, The Tennessee Journal reported Friday.

"The Tennessee Business Roundtable opposes federal or state laws interfering with an employer's management decisions concerning COVID vaccinations or mask mandates," according to the policy decision adopted earlier Friday. "Employers should be free to run their businesses without unnecessary government interference."

The organization's executive director, Patrick Sheehy, said in a Sunday statement to the Times Free Press that "Tennessee's reputation as a business-friendly state is in large part based on the absence of government intervention, whether through laws, regulations or taxes.

"Employers are leaving California, New Jersey, New York and Illinois, among others, to come to Tennessee because our state government largely avoids interfering with business management's decisions," Sheehy added. "The TN Business Roundtable believes our state's business owners are in the best position to make decisions for the benefit of employees, customers and shareholders."

National Federation of Independent Business-Tennessee state director Jim Brown told the Times Free Press Sunday that the organization didn't engage on any of the COVID-19 bills during legislators' regular session this year.

"We're not planning to engage again, but there is a bill in Texas that creates a new cause of [legal] action if you require the vaccine," Brown said in a telephone interview. "And we are opposed to that bill. And that's consistent where we've been on all new causes of action. So if legislation like that does appear in Tennessee, we do plan to oppose that particular bill."

Bradley Jackson, president and CEO of the Tennessee Chamber of Business & Industry, said in a phone interview Friday the group will "closely monitor" the special session.

"We're going to look at the call in detail, talk to our businesses about it and work in the legislature to come to some either agreements or modifications on proposals to make sure they don't negatively impact employers or conflict with other guidance they are having to go by with regard to the OSHA emergency rules."

Sentiments are running high with some GOP lawmakers opposing vaccine mandates, among them Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris.

"I am vehemently opposed to vaccine mandates by government, employers or business owners in Tennessee," Griffey said last week in a statement.

Griffey went on to say that "I am also frustrated that we, today, apparently have a number of 'medical Nazis' in the TN House and Senate that think it's OK for some Tennesseans, (those with financial power via their business ownership or employment of other Tennesseans), to discriminate against fellow (powerless) Tennesseans by requiring vaccines by threatening them with the loss of their job and/or ability to conduct business."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.