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Timothy O'Brien: Airlines tell Texas governor who’s boss

Timothy O'Brien: Airlines tell Texas governor who’s boss

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wouldn’t want you to mistake his push to forbid private companies and others from issuing vaccine mandates as just another attempt to court conservative voters or tee up a White House bid. His executive order seeking to ban mandates in his state plainly says it’s part of a larger plan “aimed at protecting the health and safety of Texans.”

Sure, the order hopes to curtail “federal overreach” and stymie the Biden administration’s “bullying,” but don’t attribute that to partisan hackery. After all, the goal is “achieving the least restrictive means of combating the evolving threat to public health.”

Fortunately, two major airlines based in Texas understand that vaccinations are one of the most effective ways to protect public health in the COVID-19 era. They plan to ignore Abbott’s browbeating. Other companies large and small should follow suit, no matter the political standoffs and threats in Texas and elsewhere. There’s early evidence that vaccine and testing mandates work, and plenty of companies were making use of them well before President Joe Biden said he would ask the Labor Department to issue rules for corporate America.

Abbott warned he would fine companies and anyone else caught ignoring his order, and would stop short of jailing transgressors only because “jail is not an available penalty for violating this executive order.” That sounds like tough stuff, but Abbott’s credibility as a COVID-19 cop would be firmer if his policy mistakes hadn’t prompted Texas to import thousands of out-of-state medical workers to help battle last summer’s coronavirus surge. Besides, companies have their employees, the law and the federal government to consider.

“We are reviewing all guidance issued on the vaccine and are aware of the recent order by Governor Abbott,” Southwest Airlines said on Tuesday. “According to the president’s executive order, federal action supersedes any state mandate or law, and we would be expected to comply with the president’s order to remain compliant as a federal contractor.”

Southwest, which is headquartered in Dallas and employs 54,500 people, is a federal contractor, and that part of its business depends on remaining in the White House’s good graces. Seven other carriers, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, are also federal contractors. That same group also flies nationally, meaning they cross state borders, engage in interstate commerce and are thus regulated almost exclusively by the federal government — not by people who occupy governors’ mansions.

American, which is based in Fort Worth and employs 117,400 workers, pointed out that “the federal vaccine mandate supersedes any conflicting state laws, and this does not change anything for American.” But lucrative contracts and regulatory burdens aren’t the only things informing some companies’ responses to Abbott. They also have the health and safety of their employees and customers to worry about.

Southwest and American have encountered resistance from some employees opposed to mandates. Last week, a group of American workers estimated to be in the hundreds protested outside the company’s headquarters. They carried signs saying “Mandates Won’t Fly,” and “Don’t Fire My Dad.” But American is sticking to a Nov. 24 vaccination deadline for its employees. Perhaps the company feels that protests from well under 1% of its workers shouldn’t stop it from doing the right thing.

Southwest experienced service outages last weekend, which anti-mandate stalwarts such as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin attributed to worker shortages caused by draconian public health policies. “Joe Biden’s illegal vaccine mandate at work!” Cruz bleated. “Stop the madness before more damage is done,” cried Johnson.

Southwest and the head of its pilots’ bargaining unit responded to that carnival-barking by clarifying that the airline’s service problems had nothing to do with worker shortages or no-show protests to vaccine mandates. Rather, bad weather hamstrung operations last weekend. Like American, Southwest plans to stay the course on vaccine requirements for its employees.

Until we have more hard data and broader experience with how workers actually respond to mandates, we won’t know with certainty how all this will play out. Undoubtedly, American’s and Southwest’s decisions to act responsibly will be fed into the “woke corporations” meat grinder. It’s unclear how Texas companies that don’t rely on federal contracts and aren’t subject to federal regulation will respond to Abbott’s gambit.

Even so, it’s encouraging that at least two major companies in the state are willing to buck dangerous political posturing. Let’s see how many more will step up.

Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

There’s early evidence that vaccine and testing mandates work, and plenty of companies were making use of them well before Biden's call for federal rules.

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