Kelly Golden

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Scaled-down vaccine ban bill passes SC Senate

Business Wtih Vaccine Mandate Sign

Photo: Getty Images

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Certain employers in South Carolina would be banned from requiring workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in a bill approved by the state Senate on Wednesday.

In a 29-12 vote along party lines, the Senate passed the anti-vaccine mandate legislation, which the House of Representatives passed last December.

The bill prohibits state and local governments, including public school districts, from requiring their employees, contracted workers, vendors, or students to get the COVID shot as a condition of employment or attendance.

These entities would also be barred from enforcing vaccine requirements on people who volunteer or participate in one of their activities, events, or programs, such as a summer camp.

The legislation would prevent vaccine mandates from being imposed on the state’s first responders, defined as a law enforcement officer, firefighter, EMT, or paramedic who is paid from public funds.

“This isn’t like an employer saying, ‘You can’t smoke on the job, or you gotta be here on time,’ or different things along — I mean, this is different, right. This is something that once it’s done, it’s done,” Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R – Edgefield, said.

Workers would be eligible for unemployment benefits if they were fired for not complying with their private employers’ shot requirement, but senators rejected moves to retroactively extend those benefits to people fired in the last nine months for not getting vaccinated.

“They don’t want to lose their job,” Sen. Shane Martin, R – Spartanburg, said. “They had to make that decision to leave that good-paying job or be fired from it for refusing to put something in their body that they cannot take out.”

In order muster up enough support for the bill to bring about a debate in the Senate, its backers had to drop its most controversial provision: fines for private businesses that impose vaccine requirements on their workers.

Businesses would have been hit with a surcharge of about $7,500 a year for four years — around $30,000 over the entire period for each worker — if they fired, suspended, or cut the pay of an employee for not complying with a company vaccine mandate. The fine would have applied for every worker on the payroll, even if only a single employee’s termination or suspension had prompted the penalty.

The measure had been questioned and criticized by senators from both parties during earlier discussions, with some concerned with the effect it could have on companies already in South Carolina or looking to move to the state.

“I’m not in the business of punishing business; that’s not what I do I just want them to knock it off, stop,” Massey, who proposed the penalties after the bill crossed over from the House to the Senate, said on the Senate floor. “But we took all that out. I didn’t like taking that out, but we had to take it out in order to get the bill up for conversation.”

The bill also bans so-called vaccine passports, prohibiting services or public accommodations from being denied in South Carolina based on vaccination status. That includes hotels, motels, restaurants, hospitals, clinics, stores, and theaters, among others.

But opponents of the legislation argued that even scaled back, it still amounts to government overreach.

“We need to think about getting out of the business of telling private entities what they can and cannot do,” Sen. Kevin Johnson, D – Clarendon, said.

The version of the bill passed in the Senate on Wednesday is different from what the House passed last year, so the bill will return to the House. If House members agree to the changes, the bill heads to Gov. McMaster, but if not, a smaller group of Senate and House members will meet to negotiate a compromise to send to the governor for his signature.

If McMaster signs it, the law would go into effect immediately and expire at the end of 2023, unless extended by the General Assembly.

Copyright 2022 WCSC. All rights reserved.

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