By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
Updated: October 15, 2021 05:56 PM
Created: October 15, 2021 10:38 AM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A New Mexico judge on Friday denied a request by dozens of scientists and others at Los Alamos National Laboratory to block a vaccine mandate, meaning workers risk being fired if they don't comply with the lab's afternoon deadline.
The case comes as New Mexico extends a mask mandate for indoor spaces across the state, citing persistently high levels of community spread.
While the vaccination rate among adults in New Mexico continues to hover below 72%, the lab confirmed Friday that 96% of employees are fully vaccinated. It's not known how many workers have requested exemptions or how many could end up being fired for declining the shots.
The legal challenge was backed by 114 scientists, nuclear engineers, research technicians, designers, project managers and other workers at the lab. Some are specialists and have high security clearance for the work they do, which ranges from national defense to infrastructure improvements and COVID-19 research.
The workers claim the mandate is a violation of their constitutional rights and that lab management has created a hostile work environment.
Attorneys for the lab argued in court Thursday that being vaccinated was a condition of working at Los Alamos. Lab management had announced the vaccine requirement in August.
State District Judge Jason Lidyard agreed, saying unvaccinated employees will have to find work elsewhere.
Lab spokeswoman Jennifer Talhelm said in a statement Friday that the decision to mandate the vaccine was made only after considerable thought.
"The safety and health of our employees remains our top priority as we fulfill our national security mission, and as a result our vaccine mandate remains in effect," she said.
For those granted religious exemptions, they will be placed on leave without pay or have to use vacation time. Those who have yet to receive their second dose will be placed on unpaid leave or have to use up vacation time until fully vaccinated.
With such a high percentage of vaccinated workers, critics have argued that forcing the remaining holdouts to get shots would make no epidemiological difference.
Jonathan Diener, an attorney representing the workers, said the plaintiffs are considering an appeal. Arbitration also is possible pending court proceeding on the merits of the case. The workers have requested a jury trial.
"The main thing is we wanted to stop people from being thrown out of work," said Diener, expressing disappointment with the judge's decision.
The workers backing the lawsuit have argued that the high degree of scrutiny required of them when working with nuclear weapons or other high-level projects has not been applied on the vaccine front, despite the lab's extensive modeling work for the state on spread and other COVID-19 related trends.
The lawsuit cited statements made over the last year by top officials in the U.S. and with the World Health Organization in which they noted that there is more to be learned about how the vaccines reduce infection and how effective they are when it comes to preventing infected people from passing it on.
Los Alamos lab on its website touts the breadth of its scientific capabilities, saying it has been helping to answer questions about the pandemic. That includes tracking the virus' evolution, predicting spread through modeling, developing reopening strategies for schools and future vaccine development.
In extending the mask mandate, state health officials said Friday that the goal was to reduce pressure on the health care system.
"It is not time to abandon basic precautions," said Dr. David Scrase, head of the state Health and Human Services departments. "Our hospital and health care partners remain incredibly, incredibly concerned about the serious illnesses they are dealing with."
A separate public health order requiring health care workers to be vaccinated remains in place. School workers also are required to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing.
(Copyright 2021 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)