Pandemic-related tweaks to Health Care Right of Conscience Act emerge
SPRINGFIELD -- An amendment to the Health Care Right of Conscience Act that allows an employer to fire a worker for noncompliance with COVID-19 vaccine or test requirements surfaced Monday ahead of the final three scheduled days of legislative action this year.
That bill language was introduced in the General Assembly Monday as Gov. J, B, Pritzker announced a new partial vaccine agreement with the state's largest public employee union.
House Amendment 2 to Senate Bill 1169, carried by Rep. Robyn Gabel, an Evanston Democrat, would create a section of the Health Care Right of Conscience Act pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The current law defines conscience as "a sincerely held set of moral convictions arising from belief in and relation to God." On those lines, certain care, including testing, can be refused without repercussions from an employer.
Some have used those lines to refuse not only vaccine mandates, but also the testing requirements for people who choose not to receive the vaccine.
The new amendment provides that it is not a violation of the law "for any person or public official, or for any public or private association, agency, corporation, entity, institution, or employer, to take any measures or impose any requirements ... intended to prevent contraction or transmission of COVID-19."
Per the bill, employers can terminate employment or exclude individuals from a school, place of employment or public or private premises in response to noncompliance.
Gabel and Pritzker's office did not immediately reply to a request for comment Monday.
But when asked about potential changes to the law last week, Pritzker spokesperson Emily Bittner said, "The Healthcare Right of Conscience Act was never intended to allow people to avoid public health guidance and jeopardize workplace safety during a global pandemic. The administration supports efforts to clarify the law, so it cannot be misinterpreted by fringe elements."
Pritzker has mandated that certain groups of state workers, K-12 school employees, higher education students and personnel, health care workers and others either receive the COVID-19 vaccine or submit to weekly testing. Last week, he added day care personnel to the list.
On Monday, Pritzker announced nearly 10,000 state employees are now covered under union agreements mandating vaccination.
The state and part of its largest public employee union -- American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31, -- announced the latest agreement, which covers about 7,800 employees of congregate facilities at the Department of Human Services and Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Our most vulnerable residents, such as veterans who can't live on their own and adults living with developmental disabilities, have no choice but to live among workers at these facilities," Pritzker said at a news conference Monday. "These residents have also borne some of the worst consequences of this pandemic, which has preyed, first and foremost, upon the elderly, congregate spaces and those with preexisting conditions. They deserve the safest possible homes that we can provide, and that includes the protection of a vaccinated community."
They join the Teamsters, VR-704 union, the Illinois Nurses Association, the Illinois Federation of Public Employees and Illinois Trade Unions as those covered in agreements with the state. All must be fully vaccinated as of Nov. 30 with the first dose received by Tuesday.
The latest agreement does not cover all of AFSCME's workers that are otherwise covered under the mandates, as negotiations between the state and the Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice have reached an impasse. The state and the union will submit to arbitration regarding the 10,300 security employees in those agencies.
For an additional 1,900 nonsecurity employees at those two departments, the governor's office said the state plans to impose the same requirements as the rest of the unions.