I’m glad to see this, but there’s a huge question that this story doesn’t address, much less answer.
Local companies say they will maintain their vaccination policies despite last week’s Supreme Court ruling that struck down the Biden administration’s vaccination mandate for firms with more than 100 employees.
The Houston software company Hewlett Packard Enterprises, for example, said vaccinations are still required for employees to enter offices, work at clients’ sites, travel for business, or required for team members to enter work sites, work at third-party sites, and to travel or attend events on business. Those who decline to be vaccinated are required to work from home.
More than 90 percent of the company’s workforce is vaccinated, a company spokesperson said. The company has not yet decided whether to require booster shots.
The Houston chemical company LyondellBasell and CenterPoint, the Houston utility company, have not adopted vaccine mandates. They said they have COVID protocols in place and will continue to monitor them.
Corporate vaccine requirement increased the rate of vaccination among employees by 20 percent, according to a recent survey by the National Safety Council. The survey found 95 percent of workers at businesses with vaccine mandates were inoculated, compared to 75 percent among those at businesses without requirements.
At BakerRipley, employees are required to get vaccinated or tested weekly, the Houston charity said. Nearly 90 percent of its 1,200 employees are fully vaccinated.
Camden Property Trust, a national real estate company headquartered in Houston, put in vaccine requirements over the summer before Biden announced the mandate. Of its 746 Texas employees, 718, or about 96 percent, are vaccinated, said Ric Campo, CEO of Camden Property Trust said.
“We just had this discussion about safety and it’s about keeping teammates safe. We’ve done all the analysis and that’s what we think,” Campo said, “And once people had a rational discussion, and it wasn’t political, and it wasn’t ‘You do this or else’ people chose to vaccinate.”
The few who aren’t vaccinated must wear masks at work, Campo said.
Whether to require vaccinations is now in the hands of companies, said Seth J. Chandler, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center. It’s unlikely that Congress would pass new laws to give OSHA the authority that the Supreme Court says it now lacks to impose workplace vaccination requirements.
The story is about the effect of the SCOTUS ruling that blocked the Biden employer vaccination mandate. I’m happy that employers are mostly moving forward with whatever vaccine policies they already had in the works, but I have to ask: What about the state ban on such mandates? The original story line was that employers would be caught between conflicting orders, but that’s no longer the case. The thought that these employers are ignoring Abbott or have found a way around him is delightful, but how is it possible? What are their legal risks here? Is there a lawsuit against the Abbott’s order?
So I did some googling. While Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee urged businesses to sue Abbott over this order, as far as I can tell none have done so yet. Maybe they were waiting to see what happened with the federal mandate first. On the question of what Abbott’s order actually means, I found some interesting writing. For example:
The Order provides enforcement via fines. Specifically, non-compliant entities may be fined up to $1,000 per offense, while jail time is specifically excluded as a penalty. The Order’s language makes no exception for health-care providers such as hospitals and other related entities.
The Order also contemplates its own sunset upon the passage of overlapping legislation. Specifically, in the Order, Governor Abbot states that he is “adding this issue to the agenda” for an upcoming session of the Texas legislature, and that he “will rescind this [Order] upon the effective date of such legislation[.]”
Notably, the Order contradicts both the Governor’s own statements on the rights of private businesses within the state, and legal consensus regarding the ability of employers to mandate vaccinations in most cases. For example, in August, Governor Abbot issued an executive order banning public and governmental entities from enacting vaccine mandates, but explicitly left private entities to make their own decisions regarding the matter. At that time, a spokesman for the Governor’s office also commented that private businesses would be left to make their own decisions regarding the matter. The Order essentially closes that loophole.
The Order also contravenes existing legal precedent within the state regarding employer vaccine mandates. For example, in June 2021, the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed a lawsuit by 117 employees of Houston Methodist Hospital; who claimed Methodist’s policy requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 amounted to wrongful termination under the law, because the vaccine(s) are “experimental and dangerous.” Bridges v. Houston Methodist Hosp., CV H-21-1774, 2021 WL 2399994, at *1 (S.D. Tex. June 12, 2021). In no uncertain terms, the Order squarely contradicts the holding in Bridges.
The immediate impact of the Order on businesses who implemented vaccine mandates is unclear—especially in light of conflicting Federal mandates. For example, Texas-based Southwest Airlines and American Airlines have stated publicly that—regardless of the Order—they will continue to implement plans requiring employees be vaccinated, citing federal mandates for contractors and the forthcoming OSHA rule for private business with 100 or more employees. While nothing is certain, it is somewhat likely that OSHA rules and regulations would preempt the Order. But Texas businesses with fewer than 100 employees would still be subject to the Order, or future, related State legislation.
Regardless, in light of the Order’s language, any Texas business entity that previously required employees or customers be vaccinated should seek counsel and reexamine its accompanying policies or risk non-compliance with the Order. At a minimum, Texas businesses should—for now—consider adding exemption language to vaccine policies that mimic the Order’s “personal conscience” and “prior recovery from COVID-19” carve outs.
The fact that the order only calls for what appears to be a modest fine (though that may depend on how an “offense” is counted; if it’s per employee, that would quickly add up) and conflicts with an existing federal court ruling may be the reason for the lack of action on it. Here’s more:
Additional questions loom, such as whether the governor’s Order exceeds his authority – his prior Executive Orders regarding vaccinations and so-called vaccine passports governed only public employers and private companies who were receiving state funds. Additional uncertainties include likely legal challenges to the Order; possible conflicts with federal law; and how and to what extent EO-40 will be enforced. It is also unclear to what extent, if any, the State will actually enforce EO-40, which provides for fines of up to $1,000 per violation.
Companies with employees in Texas who have already begun requiring vaccinations can take a relatively low risk approach to dealing with the governor’s Order by modifying their policies to provide accommodations to employees who object to being vaccinated on the basis of “personal conscience” (which is not defined in EO-40) and for “prior recovery from COVID-19.” These practices can be modified as new federal rules are issued and/or legal challenges play out. Other options for responding the Order are discussed in more detail below.
EO-40 departs from the governor’s prior orders in other ways. The Vaccine Passport Ban prohibits state agencies from adopting policies or requiring proof of vaccination as a condition of receiving services. In a notable contrast, EO-40 does not expressly forbid proof of vaccination as a condition of employment. Instead, it specifically forbids an entity from “compelling receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine.” By aiming squarely on the act of receiving a vaccination as opposed to policies requiring proof of vaccination, the Order gives rise to more ambiguity. In other words, employers may argue that they are not “compelling receipt” of a vaccine so long as that they do not intend to strap an employee down to a chair and force a vaccine needle into a worker’s arm, which they do not. Instead, that worker always has a choice: they can refuse to get vaccinated, but the consequence is that they will lose their job. Thus, another question is whether employer policies requiring vaccination as a condition of employment would be considered coercive enough to be deemed a violation of EO-40’s bar on compelling receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination.
In a larger context, considering the Texas’ at-will employment environment and the narrow availability of a “wrongful termination” cause of action in Texas, it is not clear that an employer “compels” an individual to be vaccinated by making it a condition of employment.
That last bit was a key component of that Methodist vaccine lawsuit. My interpretation of all this – and you lawyers out there, feel free to tell me why I’m wrong – is that businesses that want to get their employees vaccinated see a way forward, and so far the state hasn’t tried to make an example out of anyone. Abbott’s order was primarily about politics and his need to appear maximally troglodytic for the primary. If he scares a few businesses into abandoning any pro-vaccination plans, so much the better, but the point was to make the order. Optics come first, and on that score Abbott got what he wanted. The details don’t matter. Very much on brand for him, in other words.