SC businesses could face thousands in fines for firing unvaccinated workers under State House bill
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Private businesses that fire workers for not getting vaccinated could be hit with thousands of dollars in fines under a bill moving through the South Carolina State House.
The proposal comes as an amendment to a bill the House of Representatives passed late last year, which prohibits state and local governments, including schools, from requiring vaccines for employees, students, and contractors.
With the bill now across the State House, residing in the Senate, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday advanced it to the chamber floor for debate.
The vote came after about two hours of discussion, intense at times, largely on the controversial amendment to fine businesses about $7,500 a year for four years — around $30,000 over the entire period for each worker — if they fire, suspend, or cut the pay of an employee for not complying with a company vaccine mandate. The fine would come in the form of a surcharge equal to 10 times the highest unemployment insurance tax rate.
While senators initially thought the fine would be applied for each instance of a fired or suspended worker, Senate staff later said the approximately $7,500 fine would apply for every worker on the payroll, even if only a single employee’s termination or suspension had prompted the penalty.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Sen. Greg Hembree, R – Horry, responded after staff clarified the fine. “You mean not just the employees they let go but all their employees? So it’d be $30,000 per employee for the entire workforce? If you fire one person, it’s going to cost you — oh my goodness!”
Both Democrats and Republicans on the committee criticized the measure and the effect they fear it would have on South Carolina businesses.
“This penalty in section five is a death knell. It is absolutely impossible for any business to navigate,” Sen. Thomas McElveen, D – Sumter, said. " … It is going to be very hard for us to go back to our districts and claim we’re pro-business if we vote for this.”
“That makes no sense, us telling a private company what to do and what not to do. They live and die by their decisions every day, and right now, in this employment world, it makes zero sense for a company wanting to get rid of anybody, and they don’t,” Sen. Ross Turner, R – Greenville, said.
The measure was proposed in a Senate subcommittee last week by Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, who said he didn’t feel comfortable introducing the amendment.
However, Massey said he believed he had gotten to the point where he was forced to step in, especially after hearing of firefighters and police in North Charleston who were fired for not getting vaccinated and people in need of a transplant booted off hospital waiting lists for refusing the shot.
“If we don’t do something, there’s nobody else,” Massey said, adding he would rather businesses incentivize workers get vaccinated instead of require them to do so.
The amendment, which would also prohibit vaccine passports, was backed in Tuesday’s meeting by Sen. Shane Martin, R – Spartanburg and a member of the Finance Committee.
“Send a message that wouldn’t mess up our right-to-work state, and it would also give those business owners a choice if they wanted to fire somebody for not taking a shot that they could still do that, but there’s going to be consequences,” Martin said.
If the bill gets a debate on the Senate floor, senators will likely fight to remove the fine amendment from its text.
Senate President Thomas Alexander, R – Oconee, proposed a second amendment that will advance with the bill as well, to retroactively provide unemployment benefits to workers fired for refusing to get the vaccine before this legislation would have gone into effect, paid by the state and not by employers who “acted in good faith” before the penalties were in place, Alexander said. His amendment would also permit exemptions for federal contractors.
If the Senate passes the bill, House members would have an opportunity to change it further before sending it to the governor’s desk for his signature or veto.
Gov. Henry McMaster told reporters Tuesday that he would need to see its exact language before deciding if he would sign the bill, but he added that he would be reluctant to tell businesses how to operate.
“I think mask and vaccine mandates are disruptive and unnecessary in most cases that I can think of, but that’s a matter for those businesses,” he said.
The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce said the fine amendment “still sends the wrong message” to the state’s businesses and those companies considering moving to South Carolina.
“South Carolina has a long and proud tradition of allowing private-sector employers to run their businesses without excessive government interference, which has been a strong competitive advantage for the state’s job creators,” Chamber President and CEO Bob Morgan said. “Imposing a major tax increase on employers that are attempting to make decisions that they believe is in the best interest of their businesses would run directly counter to that principle.”
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