The Texas Legislature has been quite busy over the most recent regular and two specially-called legislative sessions. It adjourned its second specially-called legislative session on September 2, 2021. Additional bills may be enacted into law if and when Governor Greg Abbott calls a third special session. So far, Governor Abbott has signed into law several bills that may have flown under the radars of many Texas employers. Here’s a brief recap of several new laws that may impact Texas businesses and their workforce.
Expansive new sexual harassment protections
As we noted in prior posts (July 6, 2021 and September 2, 2021), Texas passed several new laws that increase legal protections against sexual harassment. The laws, which went into effect on September 1, 2021, expand liability for sexual harassment to companies with just one employee and to individual supervisors and coworkers. The legislation also lengthens the deadline from 180 days to 300 days for a claimant to file a charge alleging sexual harassment with the Texas Workforce Commission.
Liability shield for Texas businesses from most COVID-19 claims
As we noted in prior posts (July 15, 2021 and August 19, 2021), Texas – along with 18 other states – passed statutory liability protections for businesses against claims arising from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Pandemic Liability Protection Act (PLPA), which went into effect on June 14, 2021, grants retroactive liability protection for both small and large businesses for claims commenced on or after March 13, 2020. The PLPA does not provide Texas businesses an absolute immunity shield, and claims can still be brought for a pandemic-related injury or death if the business:
- Knowingly failed to warn of, or to fix, a condition it knew was likely to result in exposure, and the failure to warn or fix was the cause in fact of the exposure; or
- Knowingly failed or refused to comply with government standards, guidance or protocols that are intended to lower the likelihood of exposure to COVID-19, and the failure or refusal to comply was the cause in fact of the exposure.
As written, the PLPA’s liability shield will continue to protect businesses until Governor Abbott terminates the current COVID-19 pandemic disaster declaration.
Additional permitted (medical) uses for low-THC cannabis
Recreational use of marijuana is still prohibited in Texas. But earlier this year, Governor Abbott signed into law HB 1535, which went into effect on September 1, 2021. The new law doubles the permissible amount of THC in low-THC cannabis (from 0.5% to 1%). It also adds cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder to the permissible list of medical conditions for which low-THC cannabis may be prescribed – significantly expanding the number of people potentially eligible for a prescription. (Previously, a prescription could only be obtained for epilepsy, a seizure disorder, multiple sclerosis, spasticity, sclerosis, autism, and terminal cancer.) The law also permits a prescription of low-THC cannabis for patients who are receiving treatment as a participant in an approved research program. The law instructs the relevant state agencies to issue rules and guidance by December 1, 2021. Although the new law does not contain any employee protections for use of cannabis, Texas employers may start seeing an increase in accommodation requests seeking permission to use low-THC cannabis for medical purposes.
Expanded protections for employees called to state military duty.
Earlier this year, Governor Abbott signed into law SB 484 which provides enhanced employment protections for active service members. Texas employees who are called to active duty or training with state military forces have long been protected from termination and had certain reinstatement rights after returning from duty or training. But an aggrieved individual previously could only file a complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission. The new law, which went into effect on September 1, 2021, gives the employee a right to hire a lawyer and file a civil lawsuit in state court. It also permits recovery of damages, costs and attorneys’ fees.
New Firearm Carry Act allows permitless carrying of handguns
Governor Abbott also signed into law the Firearm Carry Act of 2021 (HB 1927) (FCA), which went into effect on September 1, 2021. The FCA generally permits most Texans (age 21 and over) to carry holstered handguns without training or a license-to-carry permit if they are not otherwise prohibited from doing so by state or federal law. The new law does not prevent or otherwise limit the right of a public or private employer to prohibit persons from carrying a handgun on the ‘premises’ of the business. But most Texas employers still cannot prevent employees from keeping a firearm in their locked vehicles in a parking lot. The law also contains new signage requirements via amendments to Texas Penal Code § 30.05.
We’ll continue to keep you updated about legislative developments. If you have any questions regarding these legislative updates, or any other employment or workplace issue, Reed Smith’s experienced Labor & Employment Group stands ready to speak with you.