Texas House approves ban on COVID-19 vaccine mandates by private employers

4 months 1 week 20 hours ago Wednesday, October 25 2023 Oct 25, 2023 October 25, 2023 3:49 PM October 25, 2023 in News - Coronavirus Pandemic
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
A man carries a sign protesting Houston Methodist Hospital's COVID-19 vaccine mandate on June 7, 2021. Credit: Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune

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After several attempts by Republicans to rein in COVID-19 vaccine mandates by Texas employers, lawmakers are edging closer to a statewide ban on the practice after legislation won House approval Wednesday.

Violators would be subject to a whopping $50,000 fine under an amendment adopted Wednesday by the Texas House. The bill’s sponsor called it the strongest such ban in the country.

“This bill is not about infringing on employers’ ability to protect their employees in the workplace. And this bill is not about what vaccines are good or bad, or what vaccines someone should or should not take,” said state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, the bill’s House sponsor. “This bill is instead about who should decide.”

The Texas House gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 7 on a 90-57 vote, with all Republicans in favor and most Democrats opposed, after a passionate debate on the merits and safety of the vaccine, the impact of employer mandates on Texas workers, the rights of private business owners vs. private individuals, whether to allow stronger exceptions for hospitals and doctors, and the bill’s impact on medically vulnerable populations.

The Texas Senate passed the legislation, authored by state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, last week, and the bill will go to a conference committee to work out changes made by the House. Abbott included the ban in his agenda for the special legislative session, which could last up to two more weeks.

SB 7 would ban private businesses from requiring employees and contractors to get the COVID vaccine.

Health care facilities would be allowed to require unvaccinated employees and contractors to wear protective gear, such as masks, or enact other “reasonable” measures to protect medically vulnerable patients.

The same allowances could also be true for other private employers under the bill, lawmakers on both sides of the debate said, although it’s not as clearly laid out for that group. The legislation only prohibits actions taken against an unvaccinated employee that the Texas Workforce Commission considers to be punishing or otherwise adversely affects the employee.

Enforcement would be handled through employee complaints to the commission, with violators subject to a fine of $50,000 in the House version — or anywhere from $1 to $10,000 in the Senate bill — and potential lawsuits by the Texas attorney general to prevent further violations.

The commission also has the power to refer cases to district courts for criminal action, and could also do so under this legislation, although the bill does not create any new crimes or grounds for lawsuits.

House supporters said the bill was needed to protect the rights of individuals to make their own health care decisions without negative consequences to their livelihoods. They also extended the bill’s protections to nursing and medical students who would work in those facilities but not be considered employees.

“I believe very strongly that that decision as to whether to get an immunization … should be a very personal decision in conjunction with someone’s doctor and informed by medical expertise, informed by deeply held personal values,” Leach said. “This bill protects employees' rights to not be vaccinated and maintain their ability to work and apply for jobs.”

Opponents argued that the ban would handcuff the ability of health care professionals to impose vaccine policies that lower the risk of viral spread for their patients. Supporters batted away attempts by Democrats to exclude health care and child care facilities from the ban.

“This is about protecting your most vulnerable constituents, your most vulnerable family and friends,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Arlington, a public relations consultant whose clients include hospitals.

Some critics said the bill also would infringe on the rights of business owners to make their own policy decisions.

Some lawmakers also said they were concerned that business owners could be subject to expensive legal and administrative costs for trying to enact other measures to protect their employees. The bill is vague on what those parameters might be.

Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat who runs a real estate investment firm, sought to amend the bill to include a list of what private employers would be allowed to do in lieu of a vaccine mandate, such as requiring unvaccinated employees to work from home, change offices or wear personal protective gear.

“Employers are going to have to react to it and come up with interventions for their employees to keep them safe while at the same time following the tenets of this bill,” Anchia said. “It’s important … that we give them clear guidelines.”

Leach said employers would likely be able to require unvaccinated employees to wear protective gear — much like health-care institutions are allowed to do under the bill — but he declined to list specific measures that ultimately would be allowed.

Leach said it wasn’t up to lawmakers to draw those lines, adding that the workforce commission would judge each case separately.

“Employers can still protect their employees,” he said. “Someone should not be fired for deciding not to take the vaccine.”

Anchia’s amendment failed.

Texans lived for three years under a statewide COVID-19 emergency declaration, which Abbott maintained in spite of pushback from his party. He promised to lift it only after lawmakers had codified his executive orders that prohibited local COVID restrictions.

During the regular session, lawmakers obliged by prohibiting local governments from requiring masks, vaccines or business shutdowns in response to COVID-19. That law went into effect Sept. 1. Efforts to extend the ban to private businesses, however, fell short.

Abbott ended the emergency declaration over the summer, which the bill’s supporters say triggered a critical need to protect workers who did not want to be vaccinated against the virus.

Summer GOP drama 

The issue triggered a highly personal and extremely bitter battle among House Republicans on social media in late August.

Midlothian Republican state Rep. Brian Harrison publicly slammed House Calendars Committee Chair Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, and House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, for allowing his bill banning all vaccine mandates to die without a floor vote during the regular session in May.

Harrison continued his drumbeat the day before floor debate on the bill, which he did not co-sponsor.

“While #Txlege House leadership has PROTECTED #covid vaccine mandates for over two years... the Texas Senate has repeatedly passed bills to ban them,” he wrote on social media.

Harrison was chief of staff for the U.S. Health and Human Services Commission under then-President Donald Trump during Operation Warp Speed to accelerate the development and distribution of a COVID vaccine amid lockdowns at the start of the pandemic.

Burrows hit back hard with a series of posts calling Harrison a “showpony” who “now pretends to care” and “a bureaucrat who spent his time in DC overseeing the shutting down of small businesses and ruining family’s lives.”

“[Dr. Anthony] Fauci and Harrison lied, and people died,” Burrows wrote. “He didn’t care enough to get out of his desk and try and get his bills passed. ... He just sounds like he cares on Twitter.”

Leach, the sponsor of vaccine legislation that passed the House on Wednesday, joined the fray.

“Brian — you were the self-described Chief Architect of the unconstitutional COVID regime that robbed millions of Americans of their rights, freedoms and livelihoods,” Leach wrote on X. “You can do all the TV interviews you want — but until you come clean and own the damage and destruction many of your policies caused to hard-working Americans, you cannot, will not and should not expect those hard-working Americans to trust you.”

The battle drew in several Republicans at a time when the House GOP was already split over the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton, with Harrison’s allies calling Burrows and others “Republicans in Name Only” for attempting to remove Paxton over corruption allegations.

Paxton was eventually acquitted in the Senate and returned to office, escalating the tensions between the factions.

Harrison tried several times Wednesday to change the bill, and Leach at one point accused Harrison of “trying to kill the bill” with one of his amendments. The two traded indirect barbs during the debate. But the warring Republicans eventually voted together to pass the legislation.

“Texans value freedom and liberty, and I truly believe you cannot have freedom without this,” said Harrison, who voted for the bill.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/10/25/texas-legislature-covid-vaccine-mandates/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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