CHEYENNE — “No more regulations or mandates on Cheyenne businesses” was the clear message from the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce on Friday as state legislators gear up for a special session this week to discuss ways to fight federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Lawmakers voted by narrow margins last week to hold the three-day session, with 35 members of the House of Representatives and 17 members of the Senate voting in favor, barely surpassing the 30 and 16 thresholds necessary for holding the session.
Several lawmakers openly shared their dissent, citing an undue burden on taxpayers, as well as questioning the logic of fighting federal laws with statewide legislation.
The vaccine mandates were announced by the Biden administration on Sept. 9. They require COVID-19 vaccination or weekly testing by federal employees and contractors, health care workers at hospitals and health care centers that accept Medicaid and Medicare, and private businesses with more than 100 employees.
Federal workers have until Nov. 22 to be fully vaccinated.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which will be administering the mandate for businesses in the private sector, has yet to finalize the rules, but several states are already launching legal battles in opposition.
On Friday, the Legislature introduced 40 bills (20 mirror bills in each chamber) that will be up for discussion, including proposed legislation directly fighting the federal mandate, vaccine exemptions, immunization, mask rules in schools and a physician’s right to prescribe medicine.
Of the bills up for debate during the session Tuesday through Thursday, Dale Steenbergen, president and CEO of the Greater Cheyenne Chamber of Commerce, specifically called out the first two bills on the list. He also noted the bills’ late debut online prior to the session, which does not allow his group and other business leaders adequate time to vet the bills with their lawyers.
In a statement late Friday, the Chamber announced its opposition to House Bills 1001 and 1002, as well as the mirror bills in the Senate.
Steenbergen said they would create burdensome and litigious regulations for businesses, and he noted the short window for public input, the burden the proposed bills would place on health care and the rushed nature of the legislation in general, as well as the potential consequences in passing legislation in the face of federal rules that have yet to be set.
HB 1001, which is sponsored by 11 senators and 11 representatives – including Speaker of the House Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, and Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton – would prohibit employers from requiring the COVID-19 vaccine mandate as a condition of employment, except as specified.
It also provides for exemptions and reasonable alternative measures to getting the vaccine; requires employers to pay severance pay to those employees who are either voluntarily or involuntarily terminated as the result of the vaccination requirement; and calls for creating a health care shortage relief and worker incentive program, among other measures.
The second bill, HB 1002 – Federal COVID Vaccine Mandates-Prohibition and Remedies – provides protection for individual rights to reject the vaccine mandate and prohibits the enforcement of federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
The proposed bills, on their face, are antithetical to capitalism, Steenbergen argued, and place unnecessary regulation on businesses that should be making their own decisions on whether to impose vaccine mandates.
“We don’t like federal or state regulatory burdens,” he said, “but we’re caught in the blender.”
Several Chamber members have already reached out in opposition to the proposed bills, Steenbergen said. This includes businesses both in favor and against mandates, as well as members concerned that these laws might impact their ability to mandate any type of vaccines that are already required as a condition of employment, such as tetanus and influenza.
“Our position is that we’re not big on mandates from any direction,” Steenbergen said late Friday afternoon. “We believe businesses should be making their own decisions and not the government. More regulation is never an answer to existing regulatory overreach.”
The Chamber also objects to the rushed nature of the proposed legislation that doesn’t even give it time to read through the bills, let alone vet them through its attorneys, Steenbergen added, or allow it to prepare adequate positions to lobby the bills.
He and his group will be in Washington, D.C., this week on a preplanned trip that was scheduled months ago, requiring them to send proxies to attend the local legislative session and monitor it online from their busy conference.
“If you’re going to make these kinds of very large commitments, you need to give the people time to plan,” he said.
He also worried about the impact the mandate might have on the struggling health care industry that is already at a crossroads and is being put in “an impossible position.”
“We just don’t do business like this in Wyoming, historically,” he said. “It’s very concerning.”
The Wyoming Business Alliance has also publicly voiced its opposition to the proposed regulation.
In a statement, President Cindy DeLancey asked legislators to let business leaders and their employees make their own decisions and to instead focus on opportunities to grow and diversify the state’s economy.
She also noted that over 98 percent of the businesses in Wyoming have fewer than 100 employees, and those businesses account for about 63 percent of the state's workforce.
“We can’t let our collective detest for federal overregulation cloud our judgment on how we allow our businesses to operate in a free-market economy grounded in making choices and living with the consequences of those choices,” DeLancey said in the statement, adding that two wrongs don’t make a right.
Some local companies are waging their own legal battles in advance of the federal vaccine mandate, including Omega Probe Inc., a real estate investment and wealth management services firm in Cheyenne with around 2,500 employees.
A representative from the company, Akito Moto, said Friday that the company has no intention of implementing the “unconstitutional” federal mandate on the basis of individual freedom, as well as fear of being liable for an employee’s health.
“There’s going to be a legal challenge,” Moto said, noting they are in discussion with other companies in the industry to formulate a strategy against the federal regulation. “This madness is ridiculous. This is America. If we don’t push back, we won’t have any freedoms.”
Simon Contractors, a construction company owned by the Colas Group, with multiple offices throughout Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota and eight locations in Wyoming with more than 550 employees, is in a holding pattern, according to Human Resources Director Larry Wilson, who said it is waiting for direction from its corporate headquarters.
Wilson said he expects to hear something as early as next week with regard to how the mandate will be implemented as the administration and OSHA hammer out the parameters.
“There’s been little clarity between the federal government and OSHA about the mandate at this point,” he said. “I imagine those goal posts are going to be moved quite a bit, and rather than try to anticipate what it’s going to look like, we’ll wait to see where those goal posts end up.”
One thing is certain for Wilson and other business leaders trying to fill open positions in a tight labor pool. They worry about any policies that might make it harder to retain and hire employees. Right now, Simon Contractors has 35 to 40 positions open in Wyoming alone.
“The last thing we want to do is lose talented employees for any reason,” Wilson said, “especially with the labor force as tight as it is.”