Noem's COVID vaccine exemption stalls out after House pushes for stronger protections

Joe Sneve
Sioux Falls Argus Leader
Governor Kristi Noem gives the State of the State address on Tuesday, January 11, 2022, at the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre.

PIERRE — Employee protections against private COVID-19 mandates are the latest issue of gridlock at the South Dakota Capitol.

Lawmakers on a conference committee of the state House and Senate on Tuesday were unable to overcome disagreement in the Legislature and with Gov. Kristi Noem about whether employers should be able to require workers get inoculated against the pandemic-inducing virus.

And the lack of compromise leaves South Dakota without any law protecting individuals from being fired if they refuse to get the shot.

The governor's office earlier this year introduced Senate Bill 211, which specifically stated that private employers that require their workers get vaccinated against COVID-19 must honor medical and religious exemptions upon request. Proof of anti-bodies, according to the bill, would also be enough for someone to avoid getting the shot.

PREVIOUSLY:SD House passes broad vaccine exemption bill, snubbing Noem

But a provision within the bill, which states employers do not have to make accommodations for employees that create a hardship for a business, drew criticism from House conservatives who preferred different language that struck that provision from SB 211, while also adding an ideological exemption.

The Senate supported Noem's proposal. The House supported the alternative. And the six lawmakers on the conference committee tasked with resolving the differences were dug in.

"Those words in this bill make it worth about as much as the paper it's printed on," said House Speaker Spencer Gosch, R-Glenham, referring to the employer hardship clause in SB 211.

Gosch was joined by Reps. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids, and Scott Odenbach, R-Spearfish, on the committee, and all three refused to deviate from the language placed in the bill on the House floor.

PREVIOUSLY:South Dakota GOP senators back Gov. Kristi Noem's vaccine exemption bill

The Senate's three members on the conference committee — Senate Majority Leader Gary Cammack, R-Union Center, Sen. Erin Tobin, R-Winner, and Wayne Steinhauer, R-Hartford — also refused to concede.

Tobin said she struggled with where to draw a line in protecting workers versus employer rights. But in the end, employers are also individuals with rights worth protecting, she said.

"I really feel like SB 211 was a compromise for people while respecting individual rights of both private business owners and individuals," she said. "We all have freedoms, but we also have freedom to walk away from our job."

The governor's spokesman, Ian Fury, dismissed concerns that the measure would have too easily allowed private employers to skirt religious exemption requirements, and that it was a prudent compromise.

"Instead, the Speaker of the House chose both to kill the governor's bill and leave South Dakotans unprotected from overreaching private vaccine mandates," he said.