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Texas House passes ban on COVID vaccine mandates by private employers, raises fine to $50K

A close-up of an arm being injected with a vaccine.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
A COVID-19 vaccine is administered at a Central Texas Allied Health Institute clinic in March 2021.

Private businesses in Texas, including health care facilities, could soon be banned from mandating COVID-19 vaccines for their employees.

Senate Bill 7 was initially approved by the Texas House of Representatives on Wednesday by a 90-57 vote.

The bill cleared an additional procedural hurdle in Thursday’s pre-dawn hours and now goes back to the Texas Senate since the version passed by the House makes some minor changes to the version passed by the upper chamber two weeks ago.

Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, said the measure seeks to help employees stay in the workforce.

“This bill protects employees’ rights to not be vaccinated and yet maintain their ability to work and to apply for jobs,” Leach said.

Under the amended version of SB 7 passed by the House, private businesses who require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine could be fined $50,000 per violation and face a potential injunctive action by the Office of the Attorney General.

Initially Leach opposed making the fine $50,000, instead of $10,000, but he conceded after a push by some of the House’s most far-right members. Leach said he’ll work with the Senate author, Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, on how to move forward.

Middleton’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Texas Workforce Commission would be tasked with creating rules around fines.

“My intent as the author of the bill is that the workforce commission would take an approach that would deter companies from enforcing or adopting these policies,” Leach said.

Opposition from Democrats and businesses

The proposal is championed by Gov. Greg Abbott, who included it in his call for the third special legislative session.

But business groups like the National Federation of Independent Business and the Texas Association of Business have opposed the measure, as shown on the House’s record. Contrary to what has happened in the past, however, those organizations didn’t testify or submit written testimony against the bill.

In a statement to The Texas Newsroom Wednesday, Glenn Hamer, the president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, warned about the impact of the measure.

"Texas is the envy of the nation, in large part, due to our light tax and regulatory climate," Hamer said. "Penalizing employers $50,000 for certain operational decisions as a first time offense could endanger the survival of impacted small businesses."

He urged the Legislature to "find better balance."

Most Texas House Democrats voted against the measure.

Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, said the proposal is part of a long-term plan by Republicans to target all vaccines — not just the COVID-19 one.

“It's every day-to-day childhood vaccine,” Zwiener said. “The folks who are trying to attack the efficacy of these vaccines, trying to spread lies about potential impacts of vaccines, they are preying on scared parents who are worried about the future of their children.”

Meanwhile, Ann Johnson, D- Houston, pushed back against Republicans who said they are representing the interests of businesses.

“This is the political environment that is being created not only for our medical community, but now our businesses,” Johnson said. “So remember when people tell you they're pro-business. Figure out how they vote on this bill.”

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is the Texas Capitol Reporter for The Texas Newsroom. Got a tip? Email him at smb@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @SergioMarBel.
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