Days after adjourning a special session to consider easing prohibitions on mask mandates in schools, a few Arkansas lawmakers are considering legislation to prohibit private companies from requiring employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.
Meanwhile, Gov. Asa Hutchinson advised Attorney General Leslie Rutledge that he has hired his own legal counsel in a lawsuit over Act 1002 filed against him and the state by the Little Rock and Marion school districts. The legislature passed Act 1002 earlier this spring that prohibits public entities including schools from requiring that masks or face coverings be worn, despite Hutchinson’s opposition to it.
New legislation filed Thursday by Sen. Bob Ballinger (R-Ozark) would create a state-recognized right to privacy for vaccination status, the lawmaker said. Lawmakers currently are in recess and plan to reconvene in the fall to work on redistricting.
At a legislative joint judiciary meeting Tuesday, the head of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and a Tyson Foods executive voiced their support of the vaccine requirement by private companies. On Aug. 3, Tyson Foods announced that it would require all employees in the United States to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1. About half of the company’s U.S. workforce is vaccinated, according to Tom Brower, Tyson senior vice president for health and safety.
Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Zook admitted that mandating vaccines is a tough issue, but believes requiring that workers be vaccinated is an employer’s right. He supported his stance by pointing out Arkansas is an employment-at-will state, and asked that lawmakers not jeopardize that. The chamber represents about 1,200 businesses.
Further more, Zook believes that employers would be put at risk for negligence if employees or customers became infected.
Hutchinson said Tuesday he doesn’t know whether Rutledge will immediately appeal Friday’s decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court or whether the case will go to trial. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox blocked implementation of the COVID-19 mask law until a trial could be held.
The attorney general’s office released a statement from Rutledge on Tuesday night:
“I am not commenting on conversations held with parties to this suit. I will be making decisions that uphold my duties and responsibilities as Attorney General as I make determinations going forward.”
Hutchinson said his legal counsel will be financed out of the governor’s operational budget.
The chief sponsor of Act 1002, Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado) said that he believes Hutchinson wants the suits to go forward and called the ruling from Fox, “legislating from the bench.”
Hutchinson said Tuesday he doesn’t support another statewide mask mandate nor does he favor cities imposing mask mandates. But he favors schools exercising that option.