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Texas universities have billions at stake in deciding whether to require COVID-19 vaccines for employees

The federal COVID-19 vaccination requirement for contractors would overrule Gov. Abbott's ban.

FORT WORTH, Texas — There are billions of dollars in funding for Texas universities riding on whether schools require COVID-19 vaccination for employees.

In early September, President Joe Biden created a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for federal employees and contractors with a deadline of Dec. 8 to become fully vaccinated. Wednesday, the administration moved the deadline for contractors back to January 4.

“We have the tool to combat COVID-19,” Biden said during his announcement of the requirement. “This is not about freedom or personal choice. It’s about protecting yourself and those around you.”

Like airline and defense companies, universities have federal contracts.

The University of Texas system has several billions of dollars in federal contracts, according to a spokesperson, and a Texas A&M system spokesperson said they have 500 federal contracts worth nearly $2 billion. Other university systems across the state did not provide data on the value of their contracts.

“There’s conflicting advice,” Rogge Dunn, a labor attorney said. “There’s legal grey areas and there’s a lot of money at stake.”

Dunn says universities will likely need to either follow the federal guidance or file a suit.

“You’re spending attorney’s fees, you’re spending administrative time and you’re bringing to the forefront and if you’re wrong, you’re going to get whacked,” Dunn said.

Many major universities including the University of Oklahoma, University of Kansas, University of Alabama, Auburn University, Penn State University and others announced vaccine requirements in the past two weeks. Texas universities and systems have held off.

Roughly 15.5 million Texans are fully vaccinated and nearly 75% of eligible Texans have received at least their first dose of a vaccine. 

In statements, A&M, TCU and Baylor say they’re still reviewing the issue.

“Like many other universities across the state, Baylor continues to discuss internally as we work to reconcile state and federal guidance,” a Baylor spokesperson said.

“We are reviewing the complex state and federal directives regarding vaccine requirements and their potential impact on our employees,” a TCU spokesperson wrote.

Texas Tech said it is working with the state attorney general’s office.

“We are working with our Office of General Counsel to determine whether there are contracts that would trigger the vaccination requirement, and if so, what the next steps will be,” a spokesperson said. “Our Office of General Counsel is also working with the Texas Attorney General’s Office for guidance.”

SMU and the UT and University of Houston systems say they’re preparing to comply with federal vaccine requirements.

Dunn says the federal rule would clearly overrule Gov. Abbott’s ban on COVID-19 vaccine requirements.

“If there’s a federal law that conflicts with what Gov. Abbott did the federal law will supersede Abbott’s law under the doctrine of federal preemption,” Dunn said.

The federal deadline is now Jan 4. That means someone getting a Moderna vaccine would need their first shot by Nov. 23, the last date to get a Pfizer vaccine and be fully vaccinated by the deadline is Nov. 30 and the J&J deadline would be Dec. 21.

Dunn says it’s unlikely lack of compliance would mean current contracts are revoked but it would likely keep a school from receiving future federal money. 

While there’s been some backlash, he’s seeing more people are buying in after a year of vaccinations with no serious issues.

“I’m seeing more and more businesses wanting mandatory vaccinations or doing a heck of a lot to encourage it both carrot and stick,” he said.

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