TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s annual legislative session doesn’t begin until January, but the state’s lawmakers are returning to Tallahassee anyway this week to vote on several bills dealing with mask and vaccine mandates.
This has much to do with the wishes of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who spent the summer railing against mask and vaccine mandates. After his anti-vaccine “passport” bill he signed in May proved ineffective at stopping companies from requiring employees be vaccinated, he hinted for months that he would call lawmakers back to Tallahassee for a second crack at it.
There was just one problem with DeSantis’ plan: lawmakers were not eager to return to Tallahassee to revisit legislation they passed just a few months ago. Nor were they eager to impose more mandates on companies — their campaign donors.
That conflict was obvious when DeSantis and lawmakers unveiled four bills last Monday for this week’s special session.
None of them ban vaccine mandates. They don’t include some of the more extreme ideas DeSantis wanted, like holding companies liable for any medical harm arising from a mandatory employee vaccination. And several measures lawmakers will vote on are simply redundant and don’t reflect the urgency of a special session — lawmakers could have taken them up in two months instead.
That said, here’s what’s on tap next week:
Vaccine mandates, with conditions. Far from a ban on employer-imposed vaccine mandates, (Senate Bill 2B/House Bill 1B) actually makes them legal for private employers. But there’s a major condition attached. A private employer would have to offer five opt-outs for employees who don’t want to be vaccinated: either a medical exemption for a health issue or pregnancy, a religious exemption, an “immunity” from COVID-19 exemption based on a medical test, or if the employee is willing to be tested periodically for COVID (at no cost to the employee) or wear employer-provided protective equipment (like a mask).
The details on those opt-outs, such as how frequently the employee would be tested, would be up to DeSantis’ Department of Health to decide. Notably, those opt-outs wouldn’t apply to school districts and local governments, which would be prohibited from requiring employees to be vaccinated.
Penalties for violations. The same bills have steep penalties for violations. Employers with fewer than 100 employees would face $10,000 per violation, or the option to reinstate the employee. Employers with more than 100 employees would face $50,000 fines. Employees would make complaints with Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office, and lawmakers are allocating her $5 million to investigate and enforce violations.
Settling school mask disputes. They would also settle once and for all the disputes about whether schools can require children be masked: Parents would have sole discretion over masking and vaccine requirements. (That’s already the current administrative rule, so not much would change for parents.) To enforce it, lawmakers would allow parents to sue, and they would be awarded attorneys’ fees and costs if they win.
A plan — for a plan — to withdraw from OSHA. Lawmakers are also considering leaving the federal workforce safety agency after its proposed rule mandating companies with 100 employees or more requiring employees be vaccinated. But actually doing so would take years. The bill lawmakers are proposing (Senate Bill 6B/House Bill 5B) doesn’t even really start the process of leaving the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s control. It just tells the governor’s office to come up with a plan for a plan to leave the agency’s oversight.
Lots of questions. Businesses have questions about several provisions in the bills. How is “vaccine mandate” defined? And how much will it cost them to offer testing for employees? On top of that, how are businesses and health care providers supposed to comply with conflicting state and federal requirements? Those questions will be asked next week. Will there be answers?