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Senate approves limiting COVID-19 workers’ comp to vaccinated

Boxes of vaccines
Crixell Matthews
Boxes of the Moderna vaccine at a 2021 vaccination event. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Another fight over vaccines spilled over in Virginia’s Senate on Friday as lawmakers debated whether certain workers who refuse vaccines should be eligible for workers’ compensation if they die or get disabled because of COVID-19.

In a largely party-line vote, the Senate approved new rules that would limit workers’ compensation to people who’ve been vaccinated or who have a valid excuse from a doctor to not get the shot.

Certain public safety officials like firefighters, health care workers and law enforcement officers in Virginia are eligible for workers’ compensation related to COVID-19 under a law passed by the General Assembly in 2020. Lawmakers later added language making workers who were offered the vaccine by their employers but refused it – and lacked a note from a doctor backing up their refusal – ineligible for the benefit.

A bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) would take the law a step farther by striking the language around employers and covering anyone who refuses the vaccines unless they have an excuse from a doctor. He estimated 95%-97% of the workers who were eligible under the law had already gotten vaccinated.

Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) said Saslaw was doing little more than “waving a little political flag” given the relatively small number of people affected. Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian), meanwhile, repeated vaccine misinformation and said vaccines should be optional. “It is their body, it is their choice,” she said, repeating a line often used by abortion rights activists.

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) – the only doctor in the state Senate and one of two health care professionals in the body – argued against Chase’s claims that the vaccines were dangerous. But she said denying compensation for death and disability to unvaccinated healthcare workers was a bad idea given labor shortages in healthcare.

“We need to give them workman's comp because they're doing the yeoman's work in this epidemic,” Dunnavant said.

Democrats like Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said Republicans were reading too much into the proposal.

“I want to get us back to what this bill actually does,” McClellan said. “This is not a bill that mandates a vaccine. This is not a bill that says you will get fired if you don't get a vaccine.”

Saslaw, meanwhile, noted that none of the groups representing workers affected by the legislation had spoken up against it.

One Republican – Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta) – joined the Democratic majority in voting for the legislation. It now heads to the GOP-controlled House of Delegates.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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