PROVIDENCE — The vast majority of Rhode Islanders may have moved past the pandemic, but some of those who lost jobs because they would not get vaccinated against COVID-19 are still looking for vindication, reinstatement “and/or” back pay for their lost wages.
They also want legal protections going forward against what they view as “discrimination.”
One was a former Barrington school teacher; others were former nurses who lost their jobs in a Rhode Island hospital for refusing to take what more than one called “an experimental vaccine.”
Altogether, more than five dozen activists in Rhode Island’s anti-mandate movement came to the State House in person late last week – or sent letters – to make their arguments known to state lawmakers.
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What do the bills do?
H5565: Banning employers from requiring proof of vaccination, reinstating employees who lost their jobs over COVID vaccine refusal
House Minority Leader Michael Chippendale’s bill (H5565) would ban any public or private employer from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination; require an employer who terminated any employee for refusal to receive a COVID vaccine to reinstate that employee “and/or” their lost pay and benefits; and prohibit the governor from mandating that anyone get vaccinated.
Chippendale’s co-sponsors include seven of his fellow House Republicans, Independent Jon Brien, and Democrat Stephen Casey, a Woonsocket firefighter.
H5884: Banning discrimination against unvaccinated individuals
A second bill – H5884 – would ban “discrimination” against unvaccinated individuals in hiring, employment and public accommodations, and give vaccination status the same protected status as race, gender, age and sexual orientation. It is not COVID specific.
With one exception, the sponsors are all Democrats including: Reps. Thomas Noret, Julie Casimiro, Camille Vella-Wilkinson, Arthur Corvese, House Judiciary Chairman Robert Craven and Casey.
H5916: No COVID vaccine mandates
The third – H5916 — by several of the same sponsors simply states: “No governmental entity shall implement, require or otherwise enforce a COVID-19 immunization mandate.”
Lawmaker says bills are about ‘righting a wrong,’ creating a protected class
Deborah O’Leary of Hope Valley summed up their argument: “The fear of a virus, our incompetent health agencies and the opportunistic pharmaceutical industry caused us to abandon the most important premise on which this country and state were founded: Liberty and freedom of the individual.”
“This bill is not about conspiracy theories,” said Chippendale, a Foster Republican. “It’s not about where the virus came from … It’s about righting a wrong and working to recover from one of the greatest policy failures in a long time.”
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At its core, he said: The bill “seeks to create [a] protected class … around the question of one’s COVID-19 vaccine status…[as] we’ve done whenever any minority group has been persecuted. And in this case, certainly I think that that applies.”
“Religious and conscientious objections were summarily dismissed; people of all ages, bullied, harassed, and demeaned without any foundation in science, statistics or best practices,” Chippendale told the House Judiciary Committee. And ” we lost professionals in every critical role in society and many will never come back.”
As a mother of school age children, Rep. Justine Caldwell, D-East Greenwich, told the advocates she empathized with the argument for reinstating those who were laid off, including teachers, while school districts are struggling to fill openings.
Elaborating on her intent on Thursday, she said: “If folks lost their jobs because they refused to be vaccinated and their former employer is no longer mandating the Covid vaccine…as a condition of employment, then I hoped they would have the opportunity to return to their jobs.”
“I am not sure if schools have dropped their vaccine requirements or not,” she added.
But the state health director, the Rhode Island Medical Society and the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights objected strenuously to Chippendale’s bill and two others seeking to ban “discrimination” based on vaccination status.
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Are COVID vaccine mandates still in place in RI?
It is unclear how many employers — including healthcare facilities — still have COVID vaccination requirements.
But Lifespan spokeswoman Kathleen Hart told The Journal: “Lifespan employees must have received the initial COVID-19 vaccine series of two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.”
“In looking back at October 2021, it was less than 1% of employees who opted to not continue working at Lifespan because of the vaccination requirement and we have always maintained that those employees would be eligible for rehire if they chose to get vaccinated,” she said. (Lifespan includes Rhode Island Hospital, Miriam Hospital, Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Newport Hospital, and Bradley Hospital.)
Raina Smith, a spokeswoman for Care New England, also said: “Yes, Care New England [also still] has COVID vaccine requirements, based upon federal CMS requirements and CDC recommendations. “
Asked about rehiring the staffers (“approximately 1%”) who were terminated because they would not get vaccinated, Smith said: “If someone who left has now decided to meet said requirements, they are welcome to apply.”
Who opposes the bills?
The state’s acting Health Director Utpala Bandy sent lawmakers a strongly-worded letter against undermining “the single most effective primary prevention tool that public health has in its toolbox … In the absence of vaccination, it is a matter of time before dreaded diseases such as polio, measles, and diphtheria return.”
Among her many arguments against the bills: “Licensed health care facilities are required to have infection controlprograms in place in keeping with CDC recommendations, which include vaccination against selected diseases.”
She also pushed back hard against the notion the vaccinations were ineffective, saying: “From February 2020 through March 2, 2023, COVID-19 … caused 3,865 deaths and 20,276 hospitalizations in Rhode Island. Vaccination with COVID-19 vaccine has been demonstrated in numerous studies to prevent severe disease, hospitalizations, and deaths.”
The Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights objected to creating a legal trip wire that forces “employers, owners and operators of public accommodations and credit/loan providers to choose between costly litigation … and risking imperiling the health and safety of themselves and others.”
“To add protected categories based exclusively on personal choice serves to muddy the existing waters of protection and opens the door to amendments to these laws which have no relation to historically victimized anddisadvantaged groups. Moreover … the prohibitions contemplated in this bill could result in the creation of a public health risk.”
The Rhode Island Medical Society: “If the data supports that vaccinations would protect their employees and patients, and that COVD-positive employees put their patients at risk, then they should have the ability to require vaccination, as they already do for flu and Hepatitis.”