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Workers across the country face a January 4 deadline to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But among Republicans, there has been significant backlash. In Iowa, there is a new law that allows workers to refuse the vaccine if they say it'll be bad for their well-being or go against their beliefs. Iowa Public Radio's Katarina Sostaric reports some employers there say they're caught between state and federal rules.
KATARINA SOSTARIC, BYLINE: In order to understand what's going on with vaccine mandates overall, you first need to know that the Biden administration has issued three different mandates. The first is for federal workers and contractors. The second is for health care workers - those groups don't have a testing option. The third, which is currently blocked by a court, is for companies with at least a hundred employees. If allowed to go forward, that would require vaccination or weekly testing.
KEVIN KINCAID: This could be the most confusing time as it relates to communicating with the workforce that I've ever, ever experienced.
SOSTARIC: Kevin Kincaid says he starts each day by trying to keep up with developments around vaccine requirements. But as the CEO at a rural hospital outside of Des Moines, he says he still doesn't know what to tell his staff members who haven't gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.
KINCAID: December 5 is coming right up, and I would really like to be able to give them some clarity for the decisions that they'll need to make.
SOSTARIC: December 5 is the date they'll have to get their first shot to be fully vaccinated by early January if they get Pfizer or Moderna. The new Iowa law directs employers to waive vaccine requirements for any workers who say they believe the vaccine would hurt their health or well-being or that of someone they live with or if they say it would conflict with their religion. And they don't need to provide any proof. Kincaid says he has a handful of employees who intend to submit that kind of statement, but he doesn't know if that'll satisfy the federal mandate for health care workers to be vaccinated.
KINCAID: So that's where the uncertainty comes in. At the end of the day, will that protect their jobs, or will that not?
SOSTARIC: Republican state leaders say the new law is already protecting the jobs of Iowans who don't want to get vaccinated and that it pushes back on what they see as federal overreach. But a lot of employers aren't so sure.
DENISE HILL: Employers are in this kind of rock and a hard place.
SOSTARIC: Denise Hill is an attorney and Drake University professor who wrote a book about workplace vaccine mandates.
HILL: And so it's really a bad place to be for everyone.
SOSTARIC: She says courts will ultimately determine how the federal and state rules interact with each other. While some state leaders say the Iowa law is in line with typical vaccine exemptions, Hill says it's actually much more far reaching.
HILL: Because it really takes away the discretion from the employer. It says that they shall waive this. It doesn't say that they shall enter into an interactive accommodation discussion to see if they can waive them. And so that's really problematic. It does, I believe, conflict with what the federal requirements are.
SOSTARIC: Hill says if the feds don't accept Iowa's waivers, employers could face fines or lose their ability to do business with the government. And if companies fire unvaccinated employees to follow the federal rules, they could be on the hook for paying those workers unemployment benefits. Dr. Christy Petersen is the director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa and says the Iowa law could hurt efforts to end the coronavirus pandemic.
CHRISTINE PETERSEN: If we don't have people actually get vaccinated, we're going to continue to have these pockets of people who aren't protected. Even if they have gotten sick, the evidence is that they don't stay protected for very long, and we will just continue to go through cycles of illness and death within these groups.
SOSTARIC: Petersen says workplace vaccine mandates have been effective. She says lawmakers should be pushing for more people to get vaccinated because the science is showing that's what will help protect them. For NPR news, I'm Katarina Sostaric. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.