South Carolina businesses would face limits on workplace vaccine mandates but also would get an extension on protections against liability lawsuits over Covid-19 exposure, under a bill headed to Gov. Henry McMaster.
The bill, H. 3126, would require any employer imposing a Covid-19 vaccine requirement on workers to grant exemptions broader than those provided under federal law. Medical exemptions would have to be granted for reasons including pregnancy, prior Covid-19 infection, and the presence of antibodies. An employer would have to grant a religious exemption based on an employee’s “short, plain statement” that taking the vaccine would violate their religious beliefs.
The Republican-backed measure also would allow any employee who loses their job for refusing a vaccine to be eligible for unemployment benefits. The House passed the bill, 76-34 on Wednesday, after the Senate passed it 29-12 on April 6, largely along party lines.
McMaster, a Republican, had voiced reservations about earlier proposals that would have penalized businesses or outright banned them from requiring vaccines for their employees, while he also criticized the federal vaccine rules advanced by President Joe Biden and banned state agencies from enforcing shot mandates. McMaster’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment on this latest legislation.
The proposed limitations mirror a trend among Republican-majority statehouses that pushed back against the spread of workplace vaccine mandates last year. About a dozen states from Florida to Utah passed a range of measures to either guarantee broad exemptions from shot mandates or, in a handful of cases such as Montana, to ban workplace shot requirements altogether. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) banned vaccine mandates via executive order.
After federal vaccine rules governing large employers and federal contractors were blocked in court, state legislative action largely died down in 2022, with a few exceptions. An Indiana vaccine exemptions bill was enacted last month, and a similar bill is still pending in Arizona.
The South Carolina bill also would extend the state’s Covid-19 liability shield through Dec. 31, 2023, and apply it retroactively through March 2020.
The state was one of 30 to pass such a shield during the pandemic, about 10 of which are set to expire soon or already have expired. Those laws largely immunize businesses and other entities against lawsuits seeking to assign blame for a person’s Covid-19 exposure, injury, or death—generally allowing such lawsuits to proceed only if the person suing can prove gross negligence or worse in the company’s operations and safety protocols.
South Carolina’s previous liability shield law enacted last year expired in December 2021, six months after the governor ended his emergency declaration for the pandemic.
Lawmakers in neighboring Georgia ended their legislative session earlier this month without renewing their state’s Covid-19 liability shield law, which is set to expire on July 14.