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Companies with more than 100 employees will have to ensure their workers are vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4 or get tested weekly for the virus under new rules announced Thursday by the Biden administration that will affect around 80 million workers across the country.
The White House said “more vaccinations are needed to save lives, protect the economy, and accelerate the path out of the pandemic.”
Health workers at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid also must be fully vaccinated, which the White House said applies nationwide to more than 17 million workers at around 76,000 health care centers, including hospitals and long-term care facilities.
The White House said the new rules preempt any state and local laws, weakening Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on COVID-19 vaccine mandates, employment lawyers said.
Abbott issued an executive order last month banning any entity in Texas, including private businesses, from requiring anyone to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The new Biden administration rule would void part of the ban, but Abbott's order still would apply to everyone else in the state, including local governments, school districts and smaller businesses.
“Governor Abbott continues hearing from countless Texans who are worried about losing their jobs because of this federal overreach," Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said in a written statement. "The Biden Administration left Texans in the impossible position of having to choose between providing for their families or being fired for not getting the COVID vaccine because of their religious belief, medical condition, or personal conscience."
However, employment lawyer Karen Vladeck said the federal rules allow for medical and religious exemptions. The statement from the governor's office also hinted at future legal action.
Employers will not be required to pay for or provide tests for workers, which will put more pressure on employees to get vaccinated in order to avoid inconvenient testing requirements.
“It’s onerous for employees,” said Vladeck, who is based in Austin. “You have to pay for your own tests, which are very expensive, or you have to go in-person to get tested, which takes time.”
The state did not have an immediate tally of how many employees in Texas would be affected by the new rules, but independent Texas labor experts said millions of Texas workers will likely be impacted.
The conflicting state and federal orders had created confusion among businesses. Days after Abbott issued his order prohibiting vaccine mandates, companies that entered into contract work with the federal government were also required to have all employees vaccinated under orders from the White House.
The conflicting vaccine mandates put the many Texas businesses that receive federal contracts in a tough position: Comply with federal law and violate Abbott’s ban, or comply with Abbott and turn down business from the federal government.
American Airlines and Southwest Airlines said they would continue requiring employee vaccinations despite Abbott’s new order.
The Texas business community at large also pushed back against legislation stemming from Abbott’s order. The Texas bills intended to block any Texas entity, including hospitals and private businesses, from mandating COVID-19 vaccines for employees, were a priority of Abbott’s in the latest special legislative. But the bills failed to pass after business groups spoke out against the proposals and at least one key Republican lawmaker spoke out against one of the bills, calling it “anti-business.”
While businesses rejected the recent Texas legislation, Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, did not warmly welcome the new rules from Biden.
"TAB remains strong proponents of voluntary vaccination efforts," Hamer said in a written statement. "However, as businesses struggle to find workers, the announcement from the Biden Administration will almost certainly increase that challenge."
Recently elected Republican state Rep. Brian Harrison, former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration, asked Abbott in a letter Thursday to call lawmakers into a special legislative session "immediately" over the new vaccine rules.
"If the federal government can order individual Texans to put needles in their arms against their wishes, we might as well give up any pretense of living in a free society or having a federalist system," Harrison said.
Texas and other states have already sued the Biden administration over the COVID-19 vaccination rules for federal contractors, which went into effect in October.
Disclosure: Texas Association of Business has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.