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Galveston County companies incentivize, rather than require, workplace vaccinations

GALVESTON

As more employees return to the workplace, business operators are faced with deciding whether to require COVID-19 vaccinations, a tough call for many struggling to keep workers and get back to normal after a year of upheaval.

While many companies are encouraging employees to get vaccinated, most are erring on the side of personal choice and creating incentives for workers to go get inoculated.

Although COVID-19 vaccinations now are widely available to people age 12 and older, many residents both in Galveston County and across the country have been hesitant or opposed to getting the shots.

Despite that hesitancy, some companies still are requiring employees to be vaccinated.

This week, Houston Methodist suspended about 200 employees for failing to follow a vaccination mandate after dozens of workers protested the policy Monday.

Major companies such as Delta Air Lines and United Airlines have said they would require new hires to get vaccinated.

Still more, such as Amazon, Amtrak and Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden, are offering bonuses, extra paid hours or other incentives to encourage employees to get vaccinated.

Gov. Greg Abbott this week signed into law a provision banning Texas businesses from requiring customers to present vaccination information. The new law doesn’t address requiring employees to be vaccinated, however.

Businesses have been walking a tightrope since March 2020, facing backlash from customers over masking requirements as face coverings became more common, then again this spring as increasing vaccination rates prompted a decline in mask mandates.

Like requiring masks, vaccination mandates from employers have become a flashpoint, said Mike Dean, owner of several island restaurants including Yaga’s Cafe, 2314 Strand.

Dean approached the question by incentivizing vaccinations, he said.

Employees who got vaccinated before March 31 received a $40 bonus. But after March 31, employees who had to quarantine from contracting COVID-19 weren’t offered paid leave, he said.

“If you choose not to, that’s your choice,” Dean said.

American National Insurance Co. also isn’t requiring vaccinations, CEO James Pozzi said.

Vaccinated employees don’t need to mask or social distance anymore but unvaccinated employees do, and the company reserves the right to ask its workforce about vaccination status, he said.

Pozzi didn’t know how many employees had been vaccinated, he said.

“We really haven’t even tried to find out,” Pozzi said.

Other major employers in Galveston County are taking similar approaches.

Kroger announced in February it would pay $100 to employees who got vaccinated. Walmart offered a $75 bonus.

Gulf Copper also isn’t requiring its 500 employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but those who are don’t have to wear masks or get temperature checks daily, said Jonathan Hale, vice president of marine services.

“If an employee doesn’t wish to get vaccinated, that’s their business,” Hale said, but Gulf Copper is encouraging employees to get vaccinated.

More vaccinated employees mean fewer chances of someone contracting COVID-19 and having to quarantine, which means schedule changes for the company, he said.

“We do actively advise employees to get vaccinated,” Hale said. “It makes it easier all around.”

‘WE CAN ALWAYS EXPECT LAWSUITS’

Federal employment laws don’t prevent employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations as long as the business provides reasonable accommodation, according to a May report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Accommodations could be for an employee who has a disability or religious belief, according to the report.

Employers should be aware that a vaccination requirement could mean needing to respond to allegations that the policy has a disparate impact on some employees based on race, religion or other factors, according to the report.

But the commission is clear that employers can mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, said Valerie Gutmann Koch, assistant professor of law and co-director of the Health Law & Policy Institute at the University of Houston.

“We can always expect lawsuits,” Gutmann Koch said. “Whether employees would actually win is another story. Any argument they might have for their rights being violated is pretty slim.”

And there’s a precedent for that, especially in the health care setting, she said. It’s not uncommon for hospitals to require their workers to get flu shots, she said.

However, employers may be hesitant to mandate vaccinations because of the ramifications of enforcing such a policy, Gutmann Koch said.

“If you’re going to set a mandate, it has to apply equally to all of your employees,” Gutmann Koch said. “If you have an employee that’s really valuable to your business and that’s the one hold-out employee refusing vaccination, you’re kind of stuck terminating them.”

Requiring vaccines can set up a company for criticism or costly litigation, but not requiring them — and going the incentive route instead — could open up other employees to health risks, she said.

Whether the incentives work is another story.

New federal guidance allowing vaccinated people to remove their masks seemed to encourage people to get a vaccine more than any incentives Dean had offered, he said.

“I told all my employees, ‘If you’re vaccinated, take your mask off,’ and that worked more than the $40,” Dean said.


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Furry friends flock to highly anticipated Galveston dog park

GALVESTON

The city next week officially will open a highly anticipated dog recreation area on the West End — the only off-leash park between 28th Street and the end of the island.

Although supply problems somewhat delayed the opening, many residents are eager to make use of the park. The city also has additional accessories planned for Galveston’s furry friends.

The 5-acre West End Dog Recreation Area, 3115 83rd St. across from Schreiber Park, opened its gates this weekend, making it both the only West End area and largest area for residents to let their pups off-leash.

The city has an official ceremony planned for Monday.

“It just addresses a need that’s obviously there,” said Cesar Garcia, city director of parks and recreation. “People have been wanting and requesting this park.”

Although the city invested $250,000 in equipment, the off-leash area actually is on Galveston Independent School District land.

The city and school district early in 2020 signed an agreement allowing the city to use the area as a dog park. Purchasing new land for such a facility would have been expensive, officials said at the time.

The contract renews annually in February unless one party decides to end it, according to the agreement.

Technically, the school district could ask for its land back at any point, but the city is confident, based on conversations with district officials, that won’t happen anytime soon, Garcia said.

“We don’t foresee that happening at this time,” Garcia said.

The new park, open from dawn to dusk, has an area for large and small dogs, water fountains for people and dogs, benches, shade, old fire hydrants and showers for residents to wash their muddy pets, Garcia said.

The Galveston Island Tree conservancy also donated several trees that eventually will grow and provide more shade, Garcia said.

Galveston has three other fenced-in dog areas at Lindale, Menard and Gus Allen parks. All three are east of 28th Street.

City leaders, especially former District 6 Councilwoman Jackie Cole, pushed for another West End park.

It’s a welcome sight for many West End residents, including Bob Newding, who has been advocating for an area dog park for about three years.

“It all came together and I’m really pleased,” Newding said.

Newding wished the dog park had opened sooner and was frustrated it wasn’t completed sooner.

But he was happy to see the project finally completed.

“This is an example of how government should work,” Newding said.

The park project ran into some delays, Garcia said.

Initial stages of planning were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. Then supply issues prevented some equipment from arriving as quickly as staff had predicted.

Then the city had to wait for the grass to grow, Newding said.

“With the extended winter, it did not help with the growth of the trees or the grass,” Garcia said.

Eventually, the parks department wants to add additional features such as a dog splash pad, which would look much like splash pads made for children, Garcia said.

The park also will support the growing population on the West End of the island, Garcia said.

“There’s more desire and more recreation requests that we’ve been getting on the West End,” Garcia said.


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Despite new law, Carnival moving forward with vaccine requirements in Galveston

GALVESTON

Despite implications by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that a new state law would prevent it, Carnival Cruise Line still plans to require passengers to prove they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 before sailing from the Port of Galveston in July.

In guidance about the cruises issued Tuesday, the company notified guests they’d have to be fully vaccinated against COVID at least 14 days before their departure and provide proof of vaccinations.

Carnival also said most children younger than 12 won’t be allowed on the ships because COVID vaccines haven’t been approved for them. The company on Wednesday said there would be limited exceptions and that a few unvaccinated people could be allowed on Galveston ships.

Carnival’s decision runs counter to Abbott’s statements Monday when he signed a new law preventing Texas businesses from asking customers for so-called vaccine passports. Abbott specifically mentioned Carnival’s vaccination policy as something the new law would stop.

But whether that’s true is unclear.

In a statement Monday, Carnival said it believed the company might fall into a loophole in the new law allowing businesses to require vaccine passports if a company is following federal health requirements.

Carnival and other cruise lines are subject to health rules laid out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and have been working with that agency in an attempt to return to business for the first time since March 2020.

It’s also unclear whether penalties laid out in the new law would be of any consequence to Carnival. The law states companies that require vaccine passports are prohibited from receiving state grants or contracts and might be barred from receiving licenses or permits from state agencies.

The Port of Galveston has been in touch with the governor’s office about Carnival’s stance since Monday, Port Director Rodger Rees said. Rees believed the governor’s office understood and accepted Carnival’s position on vaccination, he said.

“They verified what our understanding is,” Rees said Wednesday.

Abbott’s office didn’t respond Tuesday or Wednesday to questions about Carnival’s continued plans for Galveston cruises or whether the company would face any consequences if it continues to move forward with its sailings.

The new details from Carnival also provided more insight into what being on the first returned cruises will be like for passengers.

People boarding ships in Galveston will be asked to confirm their vaccination status when they arrive at the ship and be asked to provide proof of being vaccinated. People who don’t show proof when they’re at the cruise terminal will be stopped from boarding, and they won’t be given a refund for their missed trip, Carnival said.

Vaccinated guests on the cruises won’t be required to wear masks or practice social distancing while on board, the company said. To meet the standard set by the CDC, at least 95 percent of passengers will be vaccinated, the company said.

Passengers might have to follow different rules when they disembark in other countries. The Carnival Vista, which is set to sail from Galveston on July 3, is scheduled to go to Honduras, Belize and Mexico.

Carnival is giving passengers scheduled to go on a July cruise until June 14 to decide whether they want to cancel or reschedule their trips.


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Coming Friday

Will area hospitals require their doctors and nurses to be vaccinated against COVID to keep their jobs?


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State bar association investigating Paxton

DALLAS

The Texas bar association is investigating whether state Attorney General Ken Paxton’s failed efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election based on bogus claims of fraud amounted to professional misconduct.

The State Bar of Texas initially declined to take up a Democratic Party activist’s complaint that Paxton’s petitioning of the U.S. Supreme Court to block Joe Biden’s victory was frivolous and unethical. But a tribunal that oversees grievances against lawyers overturned that decision late last month and ordered the bar to look into the accusations against the Republican official.

The activist was Kevin Moran, 71, a Galveston resident and president of the Galveston Island Democrats.

The investigation is yet another liability for the embattled attorney general, who is facing a years-old criminal case, a separate, newer FBI investigation, and a Republican primary opponent who is seeking to make electoral hay of the various controversies. It also makes Paxton one of the highest-profile lawyers to face professional blowback over their roles in Donald Trump’s effort to delegitimize his defeat.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Paxton’s defense lawyer, Philip Hilder, declined to comment.

Moran shared his complaint with The Associated Press along with letters from the State Bar of Texas and the Board of Disciplinary Appeals that confirm the investigation. He said Paxton’s efforts to dismiss other states’ election results was a wasteful embarrassment for which the attorney general should lose his law license.

“He wanted to disenfranchise the voters in four other states,” said Moran. “It’s just crazy.”

Texas’ top appeals lawyer, who would usually argue the state’s cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, notably did not join Paxton in bringing the election suit. The high court threw it out.

Paxton has less than a month to reply to Moran’s claim that the lawsuit to overturn the results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin was misleading and brought in bad faith, according to a June 3 letter from the bar. All four of the battleground states voted for Biden in November.

From there, bar staff will take up the case in a proceeding that resembles the grand jury stage of a criminal investigation. Bar investigators are empowered to question witnesses, hold hearings and issue subpoenas to determine whether a lawyer likely committed misconduct. That finding then launches a disciplinary process that could ultimately result in disbarment, suspension or lesser punishments. A lawyer also could be found to have done nothing wrong.

The bar dismisses thousands of grievances each year and the Board of Disciplinary Appeals, 12 independent lawyers appointed by the Texas Supreme Court, overwhelmingly uphold those decisions. Reversals like that of Moran’s complaint happened less than 7 percent of the time last year, according to the bar’s annual report.

Claire Reynolds, a spokeswoman and lawyer for the bar, said state law prohibits the agency from commenting on complaints unless they result in public sanctions or a court action.

In an interview with The Daily News, Moran was plain about his hopes for the investigation.

“Ken Paxton did not file the lawsuit in good faith by any stretch of the imagination,” Moran said. “I hope that he’s disbarred.”

The bar’s investigation is confidential and likely to take months. But it draws renewed attention to Paxton’s divisive defense of Trump as he and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush vie for the former president’s endorsement in the Republican primary to run for attorney general in 2022.

On the Democratic side, Joe Jaworski, the former mayor of Galveston, has said he’ll run. Moran said Jaworski is a friend but that he played no role in the complaint against Paxton.

In a press release on Wednesday evening, Jaworski said he was pleased to learn about the bar association’s investigation.

“Every lawyer in Texas knows he filed a frivolous complaint seeking to overturn the 2020 election in the United States Supreme Court last December, and our Texas State Bar is charged with policing such unprofessional conduct of its members pursuant to the Disciplinary Rules we lawyers are bound to uphold,” Jaworski said.

“I look forward to learning the results of a fair, thorough investigation of Mr. Paxton’s unacceptable, unprofessional conduct.”

Paxton’s election challenge was filled with claims that failed to withstand basic scrutiny. A succession of other judges and state elections officials have refuted claims of widespread voter fraud, and Trump’s own Justice Department found no evidence of fraud that could have changed the election’s outcome.

Nonetheless, Paxton’s lawsuit won him political and financial support from Trump loyalists at a time when fresh allegations of criminal wrongdoing led many in the state GOP to keep their distance from the attorney general.

Last fall, eight of Paxton’s top deputies mounted an extraordinary revolt in which they accused him of abusing his office in the service of a wealthy donor. The FBI is investigating their claims.

Paxton has denied wrongdoing and separately pleaded not guilty in a state securities fraud case that has languished since 2015. He also has been accused of using his office in ways that have benefited allies and other donors.

The new criminal allegations prompted an exodus of the top lawyers from Paxton’s office. But Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins was still serving as Texas’ top appellate lawyer at the time of the election lawsuit.

Although the solicitor general usually handles cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, it was a private Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who brought the election challenge with Paxton. Hawkins has since moved to private practice. A spokesman for his firm said “we can’t help you” when asked about why he didn’t handle the suit.

Galveston County Daily News reporter John Wayne Ferguson contributed to this article.


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