The Delta variant is ravaging Texas. "9,027 Texans are hospitalized for the coronavirus" — nearing the prior peaks of July 2020 and January 2021. Worse, "hospitalizations are increasing quicker than at any other point in the pandemic." In the Houston area, "hospitals have begun postponing non-urgent surgeries to free up staff and beds." In North Texas, two hospitals closed their emergency rooms so staff could be diverted to nearby facilities overwhelmed by COVID patients.
Thousands of Texans are being hospitalized with COVID despite the availability of vaccines that prevent nearly all serious illness. Statewide, just 44.4% of Texans are fully vaccinated — substantially lower than the national average. And in large swaths of Texas, the situation is much worse. In many rural counties, less than 30% of the population is vaccinated.
Governor Greg Abbott (R) seems to be aware of the severity of the problem. On Monday he asked all Texas hospitals to "voluntarily postpone elective medical procedures...to free up capacity for COVID-19 patients." Recently, "Eleven-month-old Ava Amira Rivera was airlifted to a hospital about 170 miles away, because there wasn’t enough space in the Houston area to treat her for her infection."
But Abbott has not only rescinded all state efforts to slow the spread of COVID but, in July, signed an executive order preventing cities and counties from taking action. The executive order states that no "county, city, school district, [or] public health authority " can "require any person to wear a face covering" or get a COVID-19 vaccine. (There is an exception that allows jails and hospitals to require masks.) It also stops local governments from mandating COVID-19 vaccines. The executive order also prohibits any "COVID-19-related limitations imposed by local governmental entities or officials" on businesses.
But for Abbott, this executive order is not enough. He called a special session of the legislature that began last Saturday at noon. This follows a special session Abbott called for July. Abbott was forced to call a second special session because its primary purpose is to pass new restrictions on voting. In the Texas House, Democrats fled the state to deny Republicans a quorum and the session ended without any legislation being sent to Abbott's desk.
In this new session, Abbott has added several new items, including this one:
Legislation shielding private employers and employees from political subdivision rules, regulations, ordinances, and other actions that require any terms of employment that exceed or conflict with federal or state law relating to any form of employment leave, hiring practices, employment benefits, or scheduling practices.
What is this about? According to The Texas Tribune, the item is "a longtime priority of the business community that has failed in recent regular sessions: preempting local labor laws, such as mandatory paid sick leave." So during a raging pandemic, Abbott has called an "extraordinary session" to make it harder for people to get paid sick leave.
As Popular Information reported on Monday, access to paid sick leave means that fewer people show up to work when they are sick. Keeping sick people at home is a fundamental way to control the spread of COVID. Currently, about 40% of Texas workers, which is more than 4 million people, lack paid sick leave. This includes 75% of service industry employees.
In recent years, Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio have passed ordinances requiring employers to offer paid sick leave. These ordinances, however, were blocked by Texas and federal courts, which found it conflicted with Texas' minimum wage law by requiring compensation in excess of the minimum. Business lobbyists, however, are still worried and want a state law prohibiting cities localities from passing future ordinances. Abbott is happy to oblige.
The new item mirrors legislation (SB 14) that advanced — but failed to pass the House — in this year's regular legislative session. Opponents called that bill an "existential threat to Texas workers" that threatened to reverse years of "low-wage worker organizing at the local level."
The corporate effort to kill paid sick leave in Texas
Shortly after Abbott announced the agenda for the new special session, the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) issued a press release praising him. The Texas NFIB thanked Abbott for putting "regulatory consistency" on the agenda. The group claimed it will stop "a confusing and contradictory patchwork of local ordinances."
While the Texas NFIB claims to support "regulatory consistency," it does not support a state law requiring paid sick leave for all workers. Rather the Texas NFIB leads a business lobbying group called ASSET to fight paid sick leave laws.
Materials on ASSET's website claim that efforts in San Antonio and other cities to require paid sick leave show "a complete disregard for the entrepreneurs who have invested back into this state in the form of community service, job creation, and bearing the brunt of the tax load." Such laws, ASSET claims, "bear no substantial relationship to a legitimate government interest." ASSET even asserts, without any real evidence, that paid sick leave laws are "extremely harmful" to Texas employees.
ASSET's website also features a series of anonymous quotes from business owners about the damage paid sick leave laws would do to their companies. One owner suggests that providing paid sick leave would force the company to eliminate its 401K plan.
The belt and suspenders approach to making schools dangerous
Abbott's July executive order bans schools from imposing mask mandates. But that order is being challenged by urban school districts. On Monday morning, the Dallas Independent School District announced it "will require students and teachers to wear masks on campus." Houston schools may impose a similar requirement this week. There is also a lawsuit filed by the Southern Center for Child Advocacy, a non-profit group, challenging Abbott's order to ban mask mandates.
So Abbott, in calling the new special session, announced that he is seeking legislation to ensure "the wearing of face coverings is not mandatory." Abbott's push contradicts CDC guidance which recommends "universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status."
Abbott's approach largely mirrors that of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R), who leads one of the few states with a worse COVID outbreak than Texas.