AUSTIN (KXAN) — At the end of a marathon 15-hour day Thursday, the Texas Senate voted along party lines to approve legislation that bans COVID-19 vaccine mandates for private employers, though the author carved out a slight caveat on how some of the rules will apply to hospitals and health care facilities in the state.
Senate Bill 7, introduced by Republican Sen. Mayes Middleton of Galveston, passed on a vote of 19-12 Thursday evening, sending it to the Texas House of Representatives for further consideration. The legislation would bar employers from adopting or enforcing a mandate “requiring an employee, contractor, applicant for employment, or applicant for a contract position to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of employment or a contract position.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released a statement applauding the Senate’s decision.
“The passage of SB 7 will return medical freedom to Texans and ensure that they will not lose their livelihood over their personal health decisions,” Patrick wrote. “The Texas Senate will pass this bill over and over again until it passes the Texas House.”
The Senate’s version of this bill would also prohibit employers from taking an “adverse action” against someone who does not want to get this shot. Middleton brought forward an amendment Thursday that health care facilities could adopt “reasonable” rules requiring unvaccinated workers to wear certain protective equipment, and that would not be considered an “adverse action” if they did so. He told the chamber he sought to make this change after discussing concerns with medical groups that previously opposed the legislation.
The bill would still allow people to file a complaint at the Texas Workforce Commission to investigate alleged retaliation. However, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, added language that the commission would have to reach out to the Texas Department of State Health Services if the complaint focused on an unvaccinated health care worker’s concerns about preventative measures taken by a hospital.
The initial version of the legislation proposed employers could face a fine up to $1,000 for each violation, but the updated language approved Thursday raises that penalty up to $10,000. The commission would also have a mechanism where it can recoup investigative costs from employers if its efforts result in a finding of a violation.
Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, introduced another amendment Thursday that would exempt all health care facilities from this legislation. He argued this ban would potentially put employees at risk of infections on the job. However, that failed — with all 19 Republicans voting against the proposed change and 12 Democrats supporting it.
It remains unclear when the Texas House will take up a similar proposal. Gov. Greg Abbott identified expanding the ban on COVID-19 vaccine mandates as one of his four agenda items for this 30-day session. That also included creating an educations savings accounts system in the state, and the Senate also passed its plan related to that Thursday night.