Texas lawmakers weigh a bill to let workers sue employers over COVID vaccine mandates

Oct 14, 2021
Originally published on October 14, 2021 3:09 pm

Texas lawmakers are considering legislation that would give workers legal grounds to refuse COVID-19 vaccine mandates for "reasons of conscience" — and to sue their employers if they don't agree. The measure would codify Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on vaccine mandates into state law.

"The bill would let employees opt out of vaccine requirements by their employers for medical reasons or on grounds of personal conscience," Andrew Schneider of Houston Public Media reports for the NPR Newscast.

"Opponents of the bill, including some business groups, fear it would unleash a torrent of lawsuits against private employers."

The measure would also apply to workers who have "acquired immunity against COVID-19" because they've previously been infected and recovered from the disease. It doesn't detail how those workers might prove their immune status.

Bill would open a path to fight dismissals in court

As it currently reads, the bill would allow workers who are fired or otherwise sidelined to file suit against their employers "as if the establishment engaged in a discriminatory or unlawful employment practice."

Those workers could ask a court to prevent their firing, or to award compensatory or punitive damages.

The bill, HB 155, has 24 sponsors, all Republicans. It's currently in the House State Affairs Committee, which held more than four hours of testimony on it Wednesday.

State Rep. Tom Oliverson, the bill's main author, is a practicing anesthesiologist who has been vaccinated against COVID-19.

"I was one of the first to line up when it became available at my health care facility," he told the House committee.

But Oliverson also said he doesn't believe public health mandates are very effective. He also said HB 155 conforms to the concept of patient autonomy — which he said is at the foundation of medical ethics in the U.S.

"That is the idea that a patient of sound mind and body has the right to accept or refuse medical advice and treatment" regardless of what medical expertise has to say on the matter, Oliverson said.

The governor's ban faces challenges on several fronts

Oliverson discussed the bill just 48 hours after Abbott called on lawmakers to pass a version of his recent order that bans any entity, including private businesses, from enforcing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in Texas.

Abbott's state order positions the governor as a highly visible challenger to President Biden's federal mandate that requires any business with 100 or more employees to impose either a mandate vaccine or weekly coronavirus testing. The competing positions have also forced companies to choose which order they will follow — and several large employers in Texas have sided with the federal order.

Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and IBM and other companies have said they will abide by Biden's order, saying Biden's federal authority outweighs Abbott's powers.

Abbott's order also faces other hurdles. As Houston Public Media reports, Texas could be heading for a court battle with the federal government over the ban. And with a third special session of the legislature set to expire next week, lawmakers may not have enough time to enshrine a ban on vaccine mandates into state law.

By staking out a hard line against Biden, Abbott seems to be responding to political pressures within his own party, analysts tell HPM. The governor is contending with weak support in early polls ahead of next spring's Republican primary.

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