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A sweeping ban on COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employees of private Texas businesses is on its way to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, carrying with it a $50,000 fine for employers who punish workers for refusing the shot.
Senate Bill 7, by state Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, cleared its final hurdle Tuesday when senators agreed on a 17-11 vote to accept the House version of the legislation, which raised the fine from the $10,000 initially proposed in the bill.
The legislation, which Republican lawmakers have been trying to pass since 2021, offers no exceptions for doctors’ offices, clinics or other health facilities. The bill also includes unpaid volunteers and students working in medical internships or other unpaid positions as part of graduation requirements.
Private employers are allowed by the legislation to require unvaccinated employees and contractors to wear protective gear, such as masks, or enact other “reasonable” measures to protect medically vulnerable people who work or come into their places of businesses or medical facilities.
The legislation makes it illegal, however, for any employer to take action against or otherwise place requirements on an unvaccinated employee that the Texas Workforce Commission determines would adversely affect the employee or constitute punishment.
Bill sponsors said the ban will be the strongest in the nation.
“At the end of the day, this is about protecting the individual's ability [to stay employed] and making sure that they have the right to choose whether or not to get the shot,” Middleton said.
Enforcement would be handled through employee complaints to the workforce commission, with violators subject to the fine and potential lawsuits by the Texas attorney general.
Opponents of the bill, mostly Democrats, argued that it took away business owners’ freedom to decide who to hire, which contractors to do business with, and how to keep their customers and employees safe. Critics also argued that the ban would prevent health care professionals from imposing vaccine policies that lower the risk of viral spread for their patients.
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, like requiring unvaccinated employees to change offices or work remotely. The bill is vague on whether such actions would be prohibited.
“Are you telling me if I'm making my living, running a food truck, and I want to hire someone to help me flip the burgers, and I happen to be one of those crazy people who think that COVID is bad for me, I can't precondition their employment on them being vaccinated?” said state Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas. “Where’s the balance in that?”
Abbott included the ban in his agenda for the special legislative session, which ends next week.
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 legislative 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.