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Lawmakers act on vaccine mandates amid OSHA order

Bill introduced that would exempt workers from vaccine if they provide antibody test results

As businesses scramble to meet upcoming federal COVID-19 vaccine and testing rules, some state lawmakers are moving to carve out more exemptions for Pennsylvania workers.

On Tuesday, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, and Sen. Chris Gebhard, R-Lebanon, introduced a bill that would exempt workers from vaccine rules if they can provide occasional antibody test results. The bill, first discussed in October, counts several cosponsors, including Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

The proposal would free workers from vaccine requirements if they provide a negative test every two weeks, or “proof of immunity” in the form of an antibody test every three months — an indication that previously infected person still shows an immune response.

“For decades, scientists have recognized the ability of the human body to naturally fend off illness,” the sponsors said in a memo.

The Centers for Disease Control recommend vaccination even for those already infected with the illness.

The Senate proposal comes as employers prepare for a sweeping federal workplace safety rule that would mandate vaccines and testing for large businesses. The rule — issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after an order from President Joe Biden — requires businesses with more than 100 employees to mandate vaccination or weekly testing for workers.

The order has been in limbo as Republican-led state governments sue to stop it. A federal appeals court approved the order to go into effect by early February, but opponents are still seeking to block it, citing unfair pressure on employers.

Federal safety officials have loosened expectations amid the standoff, noting that employers making a good-faith effort to follow the rule won’t be punished if they don’t immediately meet all the requirements.

Some states, meanwhile, have worked to undermine the rule before it takes effect. In Florida last month, the state government banned employers from issuing vaccine mandates.

Payment order prompts push for loan relief

State legislators, U.S. senators and an array of activist groups are rushing to minimize the financial hit on student loan borrowers as Biden pushes the repayment deadline back three more months.

Activists and progressive lawmakers have long pushed for an extended pause or outright cancellation of federal student loan repayments, which were set to restart on Feb. 1 before Biden announced an extension Wednesday. Borrowers can now wait until May.

Americans in debt to federal student lenders haven’t had to repay their loans for much of the pandemic; on the campaign trail last year, Biden pledged to forgive thousands of dollars of debt per person.

At least one representative in Harrisburg is moving to chip away at that debt regardless of the repayment date.

This week, Rep. Nick Pisciottano, D-Allegheny, proposed a bill to use the state’s American Rescue Plan money to cover thousands of dollars of debt for those who attended certain colleges and trade schools.

The bill counts four cosponsors, although its future is uncertain in a GOP-controlled chamber.

“Student loan borrowers in Pennsylvania need assistance, and we have the ability to provide some relief,” Pisciottano told colleagues this week.

U.S. senators, too, are pushing for temporary relief. On Monday, 10 Senators including Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., signed a letter to the Department of Education asking for a long-term halt to wage garnishment for unpaid student loans.

Noting that more than 9 million Americans are in default on federal student loans, the senators said harsh tactics — including seizing child tax credit payments and using aggressive collection agencies — have hit the country’s most vulnerable people. The letter calls for a halt to wage garnishment as long as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Map deadline on the horizon

At least one Democratic-affiliated group claims the congressional mapmaking process has hit a wall, with deadlines approaching in the next few weeks.

The National Redistricting Action Fund sued last week to end the process, effectively sending the case to the state courts. If the group succeeds, they would effectively repeat the situation in 2018, in which the state Supreme Court drew its own map during a legislative impasse.

Members of the General Assembly have been working on their own maps, with some possible early versions leaking to the press and released for public discussion. Lawmakers have to redraw the map with 17 seats instead of the prior 18, a result of Pennsylvania’s shrinking share of the national population.

State officials have given deadlines in December and January for the new map’s passage. County and state election officials need maps well in advance of the state’s May congressional primaries.

In 2018, it wasn’t until mid-February that the Supreme Court issued its own map.

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Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers. He can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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