How businesses in Texas and Florida grapple with state vaccine backlash

The Biden administration’s effort to impose sweeping vaccine regulation on private employers last year was hit by a wave of state laws restricting the company’s mandate to vaccinate. Texas and Florida have pioneered that backlash.

Now the Supreme Court has blocked Federal vaccine standardswhich will force major companies across the country to mandate Covid-19 vaccines or weekly testing for a total of 80 million workers, businesses in Texas and Florida have been subject to complex local laws. complicated and confused public health guidelines as they considered how to protect workers.

As the coronavirus grows make it clear that it’s here to stay, businesses are feeling pressure to reopen and re-establish some semblance of normalcy. That means figuring out what their safety precautions will look like, especially if their operations span states with dramatically different pandemic rules.

The Walt Disney Company suspended the national immunization mandate for employees in Florida because of state regulations, even if it was work to keep the requirements right for workers in its home state of California. An Austin restaurant owner said he asked his customers to get vaccinated but couldn’t check for proof they were vaccinated under state law. Hewlett Packard Enterprise has established a crisis management team that meets twice weekly to assess Covid conditions and local laws in the 17 states where the company operates, including Texas, and to make the assessment. the company’s ability to reopen offices and commission vaccines or trials.

Adam Bauer, a spokesman for Hewlett Packard Enterprise, said: “Of course it is difficult to keep track of how guidelines change at the national or local level. “Nothing about this pandemic is uncomplicated.”

In the fall, as the economy picks up, several large national companies set up vaccination missions in the hope of keeping workers healthy and working. A November poll of 543 companies from Willis Towers Watson found that 57% requested or planned to require a vaccine, though a third said they would do so only if the Biden administration regulated it. effective. The rise of Omicron has mobilized more companies to consider such precautions.

In Texas and Florida, state officials say they want to protect workers’ freedoms by limiting the types of safety protocols that employers can adopt. However, many employers have found that regulations can be a barrier to keeping their workers safe and open to business.

“It’s a weird world in Texas,” said Austin Kaplan, an employment attorney who has consulted with numerous Austin companies that are battling Texas’ vaccine regulations. “In other states, you must show proof of vaccination to dine. In Texas, you’re not allowed to ask”.

In Florida, where 65% of people are fully immunized, Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law limiting immunization mandates in November. argumentative that “no one should lose their job due to the heavy duties of Covid.”

Florida requires employers to provide a broad list of exemptions workers can invoke to avoid vaccination duties, effectively making workplace requirements . Workers can avoid company authorization for vaccines if they are pregnant, say they are trying to get pregnant, or use personal protective equipment provided by their employer. Large companies that violate Florida’s standards can be fined up to $50,000 for each violation.

In Texas, where 59% of people are fully immunized, Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order in October stating that no employer can force someone to single-handedly oppose vaccination. This exemption effectively ensures that no worker may be subject to extensive vaccination mandates, according to labor attorneys.

The Texas Legislature passed a law in May saying that organizations subject to any form of government licensing — meaning all restaurants and bars — must not ask customers to They present proof of vaccination. Businesses that require proof of vaccinations can face severe penalties, including the loss of their liquor license.

Adam Orman, who works with Fiore Tedesco which owns L’Oca d’Oro, an Austin restaurant with 25 workers, said: “Making vaccine passports illegal seems purely political.” He is also a co-founder of the Good Work Austin hotel association. happen.”

Mr Orman requires his customers to be vaccinated when dining in the home – and will notify them when they call to make a reservation – but he is not asking for proof because of state law. Orman instructed his employees last spring that they must be fully vaccinated, with booster shots, unless they are medically or religiously exempt. He said he was frustrated that he could not promise them that the people they served would be held to the same standards.

“Our employees are working too hard to keep themselves safe and healthy so they can work to serve everyone,” he said. “To have an item that we can’t ask the guests who are entering the restaurant, to the safe place we’ve created, to get vaccinated – that’s frustrating.”

Texas and Florida laws have forced national companies operating in the states to make exceptions to company policies.

Disney pause its vaccine duty to employees of its Florida theme park in November, after the state made widespread vaccine regulations illegal. More than 95% of the actors at the park have been vaccinated, a spokeswoman said. Related Companies, a real estate company that mandated vaccinations for all of its employees in April, no longer require its employees in Florida or any other state to ban vaccination broadly. cobble.

Other businesses have pushed back Florida’s red tape. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings sued Florida’s surgeon general in julywhich alleges the state prevented it from continuing its voyages in a “safe and sane” manner by ban it to require customers to be vaccinated. A judge rule in favor of the company one month later.

Meanwhile, some companies run by regulators who support vaccines but wonder about the idea of ​​making them a condition of employment have welcomed the Texas and Florida policies.

“I understand that each state has to make their own policies about what their leadership feels is right for the state,” said Harold Westervelt, chief executive officer of Texas-based technology company FileTrail. and it is my duty as a CEO to adhere to that.” , has about 70 employees.

Several major national employers are maintaining their vaccination mandates in Texas and Florida by only applying them to people entering their offices. Whether that approach helps companies stay out of control by state officials can be tested as more workers are asked to return to the office.

For example, money manager Vanguard, which requires US workers to be vaccinated in its offices, will extend the same requirement to the Dallas office it plans to open this year. . Private equity firm Blackstone, which is requiring vaccines and boosters for American workers into its offices, is maintaining that policy in Florida.

Oil giant BP, which has 3,500 office workers in Houston who are working remotely, requires employees to be vaccinated or tested twice weekly and wear masks once they start going in-person.

Checkr, a human-resources technology company that is opening a new office in Orlando, Fla., this spring, set up a task force that oversees state regulations to establish safety policies of Covid for each of the company’s 5 locations and 845 employees. Employees in the San Francisco office must wear masks, while those in the Denver office do not – although in both locations everyone entering the office is required to be vaccinated.

The company said it has yet to make a decision on vaccination or face covering policies for its Florida office, citing uncertainty about state regulations.

“We had to be really flexible, realizing the virus was changing and our understanding of safe work environments had changed,” said Linda Shaffer, CEO and HR at Checkr. “Do I wish it wasn’t so? Of course. Everyone wants that.”

Brooks Barnes contribution report. How businesses in Texas and Florida grapple with state vaccine backlash

Fry Electronics Team

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