COVID-19 vaccine mandate ban heads to Gov. Abbott’s desk

Legislation that will prohibit private employers in Texas from mandating COVID-19 vaccines or taking adverse actions against employees who refuse the vaccine is now heading to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, where it is expected to be signed into law.

Senate Bill (SB) 7 by Sen. Mayes Middleton (R-Galveston) will be one of two new state laws pushing back on COVID-19 era policies, alongside SB 29 by Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) from the regular session, which banned local governments from imposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Abbott asked lawmakers to revisit the issue in the third special session call after the proposal failed to pass this spring.

The original version of the bill provided that employees may submit complaints to the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), which can then investigate a violation of the act and enforce it via assessing a fine or, as a last resort, asking the Texas Office of the Attorney General to seek a court order prohibiting continued violations.

The fine was also originally set at a maximum amount of $10,000; however, an amendment by Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) increased the penalty to $50,000 per violation.

Democratic Rep. Ann Johnson (D-Houston), who is opposed to the bill, stated on the House floor that she was told the penalty increase would be removed via conference committee.

But that proved not to be the case Tuesday, with Middleton moving to concur with the House amendment.

Only one Senate Republican indicated opposition to the increased fine: Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-North Richland Hills), who said he would be more comfortable with the $10,000 penalty.

Hancock expressed concern that the higher fine could harm small businesses, and said while he would vote for the bill, he wanted to note “we are mandating on small businesses." He added that the senators should acknowledge they are taking away the liberties of employers to govern their businesses in order to benefit employees’ individual medical liberties.

In addressing some of Hancock’s concerns, Middleton stated that the TWC will give employers an opportunity to comply with the law, and will only use the fine for those who refuse to comply. He also noted the higher penalty is necessary to ensure larger companies comply with the law.

In a vote of 17 to 11 against, the motion to concur passed, allowing the legislation to now head to Abbott’s desk for signing.

Under the bill’s effective clause, the legislation will become law 91 days after the last day of the special session, or on February 7, 2024.

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