Governor Ron DeSantis signed four bills all relating to COVID-19 and vaccine mandates last month following a special session of the State Legislature. These bills include prohibitions on vaccine mandates for government employees in the state of Florida as well as requirements for private sector vaccination exemptions.
The primary piece of legislation is House Bill 1B, which incorporates the bulk of the policy changes that Governor DeSantis signed into law. The assessment below looks at the policies in all four bills and makes recommendations for potential model legislation moving forward.
Core Provisions in the Florida Mandate Ban Package
- Prohibits private employers from imposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates on full-time, part-time, or contract employees without also expanding exemption criteria beyond just religious exemptions. This includes medical reasons such as pregnancy, anticipated pregnancy, prior COVID-19 infection conferring natural immunity, periodic testing, and the use of PPE at the place of employment.
- Includes protocols for how employees should file for these new exemptions.
- Provides for redress of employee grievances through the Department of Legal Affairs if employers violate these new provisions.
- Requires employers with fewer than 100 employees to pay a $10,000 fine per violation and employers with more than 100 employees to pay a $50,000 fine per violation.
- Includes provisions for ensuring employees wrongfully terminated remain eligible for unemployment.
- Includes a provision that barring an employer from imposing a policy that prohibits an employee from getting vaccinated.
- Includes language ensuring that complaints against employers for violating the mandate ban are confidential until investigations are concluded.
- Prohibits educational institutions and elected/appointed officials at the local level from imposing vaccine mandates on students.
- Provides a right of action for parents, emancipated minors, and adult students if this prohibition is violated by school officials.
- Includes a prohibition on mask mandates for students, leaving discretion up to parents.
- Provides a right of action for parents, students, and staff if the school or school district violates the mask mandate prohibition.
- Prohibits schools from keeping students exposed to COVID-19 from attending class if they are asymptomatic or test negative.
- Prohibits schools from keeping teachers/staff exposed to COVID-19 from teaching/working if they are asymptomatic or test negative.
- Prohibits the implementation of a vaccine mandate on government employees, including K-12 public school and charter school teachers, for full-time, part-time, and contract workers.
- Repeals any existing mandate passed at the local or municipal level that contradicts this prohibition.
- Imposes fines of $5,000 per violation on educational institutions and state agencies. Funds are transferred away from violating entities’ existing appropriations and into the General Revenue Fund.
- Includes provisions ensuring employees wrongfully terminated remain eligible for unemployment.
- Appropriates $5 million to the Attorney General’s office to investigate complaints against employers for violating the mandate ban.
- Directs the governor to craft a state plan (Florida Occupational Safety and Health State Plan) to assert state jurisdiction over occupational safety and health issues with the explicit intention of removing Florida from underneath OSHA’s purview.
- Strips the state Surgeon General of his or her authority to mandate vaccinations by “any means necessary,” which is a vestige of a state law passed in the wake of the anthrax attacks following 9/11.
States looking to emulate Florida’s approach to protect employees and prohibit the implementation of authoritarian mandates have much to like in the legislative package signed by Governor DeSantis. However, there are several additional policy provisions that merit lawmakers’ consideration to help tighten up potential gaps that could be exploited. These include:
- Expanding the medical exemptions to include a patient’s preexisting conditions as a potential trigger, based on the professional opinion of the patient’s doctor, for a poor immune response from the vaccine.
- Subjecting government employers, state agency personnel, and school administrators to forfeiture of their taxpayer-funded pensions if investigations determine willful violation of these mandate bans.
- Reiteration that policies dealing with vaccinations, masks, and workplace safety remain under the purview of duly-elected state officials, in-line with the constitutional framework undergirding our republic.
Florida’s legislative strategy to protect its workforce and students from the implementation of a vaccine mandate is creative and intelligently-crafted. States looking to protect their workforce and students from these onerous mandates should give the legislative package enacted in Florida a close examination and consider mirroring the policy approach.