A vaccine passport prohibition passed by the Texas Legislature this session would not protect employees at a Houston hospital fighting mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition for continued employment. Legislation that would have addressed such situations died in the Legislature, and one senator believes Abbott should bring this back in a special session.

A total of 117 Houston Methodist Hospital employees are suing their employer over a requirement that all employees receive a COVID-19 vaccination by June 7 as a condition of employment. Four of the plaintiffs, staff members in high-level positions, have already been fired.

Because the vaccinations are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the employees say being required to vaccinate makes the recipients part of a trial. “You can’t fire someone for refusing to do something illegal, and if you look at federal law, it makes it very clear that it’s illegal to force someone to participate in a vaccine trial,” said Jared Woodfill, the employees’ attorney.

Questions have also been raised about the vaccines’ safety. In a post about his bill restricting vaccine passports, State Sen. Bob Hall (R–Edgewood) said that during a May 6 committee hearing, senators “heard informative testimony from Texas doctors who have experience treating patients on the frontlines of the pandemic, and who shared their concerns about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines.”

But recently, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that enforces federal laws on employment, said employers can require employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.

“It is legal for health care institutions to mandate vaccines, as we have done with the flu vaccine since 2009,” Houston Methodist CEO Dr. Marc Boom said. “The COVID-19 vaccines have proven through rigorous trials to be very safe and very effective and are not experimental.”

One question that exists is if legislation currently sitting on Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk would address this employer requirement.

Senate Bill 968 from State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R–Brenham), which the Legislature sent to Abbott on June 1, states businesses cannot require customers to show proof of vaccination, or they would be denied state taxpayer funds. State agencies “may” also require businesses to abide by this as a condition for their license or permit. Texas Scorecard asked Kolkhorst’s office if SB 968 would help address the situation at Houston Methodist.

“[SB] 968 is simply about vaccine passports in relation to other pandemic response issues,” Kolkhorst’s Chief of Staff Chris Steinbach replied. “It’s just about having the Florida-style model where you can’t require papers to be shown that you were vaccinated to do business in the state.”

SB 968 is similar to Florida’s Senate Bill 2006, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law last month, with two exceptions: one regarding enforcement, and another that the Florida bill specifically states “an educational institution … may not” require proof of vaccination from students. SB 968 doesn’t mention educational institutions.

Steinbach pointed us to House Bill 4272 by State Rep. Stephanie Klick (R–Fort Worth). “That is another immunization bill that Sen. Kolkhorst amended in the Senate with employee protections,” Steinbach said. “It was taken off when it got back to the House, and Klick went to conference on it. … It didn’t work out, and the bill failed.”

“I think the House had said it was a germaneness issue that it couldn’t stay in the bill. I don’t know,” he added.

Another bill that would have provided employee protections is Hall’s SB 1669, which would have made it an “unlawful employment practice” if an employer fires, doesn’t hire, “or otherwise discriminates” against someone for not being vaccinated or not being immune to a disease. The same would have applied to labor organizations and employment agencies.

“The committee substitute for the bill limited these provisions to only the COVID-19 vaccines, as well as, any vaccine that has not received full FDA approval,” Hall recently posted. SB 1669 was not voted out of the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Some opponents have characterized bills such as these as an infringement on the rights of businesses.

Jennifer Bridges, one of the hospital’s nurses, argues employees should have freedom of choice on the vaccination issue. “People trying to force you to put something into your body that you’re not comfortable with, in order to keep your job, is just insane,” she said. Bridges wants time for the FDA to gather more information on the vaccines. “Just let everybody have a choice and the right to make their own decision.”

The requirement at Houston Methodist appears to be gaining traction elsewhere. “CEOs of other health care institutions are calling nearly every day to ask how we are doing it,” Dr. Boom told staffers in a note. “I hope other health care systems and employers will quickly join Houston Methodist in making the vaccine mandatory for staff.

That jolted Texans for Vaccine Choice to issue an alert. “FIGHT BACK,” they posted. “The world is watching.” Other citizens commented in agreement.

“NO one should be forced to take a ‘medication’ they don’t want to,” commented Montana Farrington.

“Keeping fighting against [forced] vaccinations,” agreed Tara Hartjen.

“Your body, your choice,” said Jennifer Reents.

With reports that Gov. Greg Abbott will be calling multiple special sessions of the Texas Legislature, Hall said he intends to ask that this issue be added to lawmakers’ to-do list.

“I will ask that this be added to the 87th Legislative Special Session Call,” Hall said of the protections in SB 1669. “I will continue to fight against vaccine mandates and discrimination, and I hope for future opportunities to pursue legislation which will protect Texans’ freedom to make decisions about their health—without any fear of coercion.”

Concerned citizens may contact Gov. Greg Abbott, their state senator, and their state representative.

Robert Montoya

Born in Houston, Robert Montoya is an investigative reporter for Texas Scorecard. He believes transparency is the obligation of government.