Tennessee bill filed to block businesses from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for workers, customers

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Nursing supervisor Nadine Stone fills syringes with vaccine at First Baptist Church in Cleveland, Tennessee, on March 30.

NASHVILLE - A bill filed in advance of this week's Tennessee General Assembly special session on COVID-19 says government agencies and businesses can require vaccinations for employees - but are barred from requiring any proof.

"This now says period - across the board - no one can require proof of vaccination," bill sponsor and House Calendar and Rule Committee Chair Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, said Monday night in a telephone interview regarding House Bill 9004.

"Bridgestone, no employer, nobody. Everyone is secure in their public health vaccination, nobody asks for a flu vaccination passport, polio, rubella, whatever it may be. So we're saying that holds true for COVID, and no one can require proof of vaccination. You can mandate it if you want, but you can't require proof of vaccination."

The lawmaker's comments come with the Republican-controlled legislature preparing to convene the special session Wednesday addressing COVID-19 mandates.

While Zachary's measure doesn't have a Senate sponsor yet, he expressed confidence he will have one, saying, "I've talked to a few guys and hopefully I'll have one tomorrow."

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, questioned the legislation.

"We don't need this week's bit of political theater to actually do damage to Tennessee businesses or health providers," Yarbro, an attorney, said in a statement to the Times Free Press. "These proposals to evade federal law look unworkable, unconstitutional or both."

Yarbro added, "I'd say the proposals are unwise too, but that horse already left the barn, galloped down the road and is in the next state by now."

"It's a total waste of time," House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie said Monday in a telephone interview about Republicans' efforts. "We're using taxpayer money for something that's been solved already, a solution in search for a problem that doesn't exist."

"It's going to be more political grandstanding than actually trying to find solutions to problems," Dixie said. "That's my issue. There's no reason for us to be here, No. 1. We're mandating that there are no mandates in this. So you're going to put more regulations on businesses after I thought Tennessee was a business-friendly state. So we either are or we aren't."

Zachary's bill is one of eight filed so far by House Republicans for the special session. No Senate bills had been listed on the legislative website Monday night, but they are expected.

The issue of vaccination mandates and "passports" as proof of COVID-19 vaccinations has upset Republicans here and elsewhere since President Joe Biden announced his administration will issue a rule to say federal contractors and larger employers must either vaccinate workers or else require weekly testing.

A number of Republicans weren't happy when Chattanooga-based BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee dismissed 19 out of 900 employees in public-facing positions who refused to be vaccinated for COVID-19, company officials said. The company has more than 6,000 employees.

"As you know, a growing number of companies are taking similar steps toward vaccine requirements," BlueCross Senior Vice President Dalya Qualls said in a statement to the Times Free Press on Sunday. "We've taken these actions because we believe the vaccines are safe and effective and the best way to limit the risk of severe illness for our employees and the people we serve, which includes the state's most vulnerable."

The company has worked to educate employees on the value of vaccinations, offered incentives and held on-site vaccination events. Currently, more than 70% of the health insurer's workforce are fully vaccinated, Qualls said.

According to a legislative analysis of Zachary's bill, it would prohibit a person, private business or state or local government official or entity from compelling proof of vaccination for COVID-19 by a person, including an employee or a consumer, who objects to medical treatment for a reason of personal conscience, based on a religious belief or for medical reasons, including prior recovery from COVID-19.

A person who objects to medical treatment for medical reasons must provide a document signed by the employee's treating physician stating that the employee should not receive the medical treatment due to medical reasons.

It also provides that a person injured as a result of a violation of the new law may sue the violator, as well as seek to recover costs and attorneys' fees.

It's an exception to the Tennessee COVID-19 Recovery Act, which generally provides that there may be no claim against any person for loss, damage, injury or death arising from COVID-19, unless the claimant proves that the person caused the loss, damage, injury or death through gross negligence or willful misconduct.

Tennessee businesses have been bracing for such a bill. Zachary had offered a similar bill during last week's special session regarding incentives for Ford Motor Co. to build a plant in West Tennessee. The measure cleared a committee but never came to the floor because it had no Senate companion measure.

Earlier this month, Lee declined to call lawmakers into special session on COVID-19 issues despite being urged to do so by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge.

"I know there's a lot of conversations about what needs to be done, but I've not been involved in the legislature's conversations around where they're headed with a proposed special session so I can't really comment on that," Lee said earlier this month before issuing his own special session call regarding the Ford project.

No Senate bills have been listed for this week's special session as of late Monday afternoon, but several senators have said they intend to file measures.

Among them is Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, who said he plans to introduce a bill based on a Montana law to ban COVID-19 vaccinations in Tennessee being made a condition of employment.

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