A judge on Friday rejected a request to block a vaccination order by the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s main contractor, paving the way for workers to be fired if they refuse to be vaccinated.
State District Judge Jason Lidyard ruled that lawyers representing about three dozen lab workers had failed to present arguments that met the criteria for a suspension of the vaccine’s mandate.
Lidyard rejected arguments that a policy requiring employees to be vaccinated or lose their jobs is coercive.
“Nobody puts a needle in anyone’s arm,” Lidyard said. “All that is said is that if you don’t get the vaccine, you have to find work elsewhere.”
Employees of Triad National Security LLC had up to 4 p.m. to show that they had been vaccinated or were at risk of dismissal. The triad set the deadline in August after the faster-spreading delta variant of the coronavirus caused an increase in cases in the state and across the country.
In an August note, Thom Mason, who heads both the lab and Triad, wrote that employee vaccination was vital to fulfilling the lab’s critical mission and was the best tool to curb the spread of a potentially disease. serious.
A spokesperson for the lab wrote in an email that the order was placed after careful consideration.
“The safety and health of our employees remains our top priority as we fulfill our national security mission and, therefore, our vaccination mandate remains in effect,” the spokesperson wrote. “We appreciate the thorough consideration and consideration provided by the court on the important issues presented at the hearing.
So far, 96 percent of LANL employees have been fully immunized, according to the lab. Those who received the first injection between October 1 and October 15 must take vacation or unpaid leave until they are fully immune.
The injunction request was made by attorneys representing the employees in a lawsuit challenging the lab’s authority to impose the order and claiming the shots could worsen some people’s medical problems.
Mason, medical director Sara Pasqualoni and Triad are named in the 259-page complaint.
Jonathan Diener, one of the employees’ lawyers, said the judge ignored written statements from two doctors who questioned the vaccine’s ability to stem the spread of the virus.
“He made a bad decision,” Diener said.
A vaccine helps the body fight off the virus, but it doesn’t make the person less infectious, Diener said, arguing that a vaccinated person can transmit the virus as much as a person who has not received the vaccines.
A general policy prohibiting unvaccinated employees from working in the lab as a means of reducing the spread is “a red herring,” Diener said.
The judge briefly took note of Diener’s medical experts, but made it clear that he sided with extensive research showing that vaccines reduce a person’s chances of contracting and transmitting the virus.
The triad of requiring employees to be vaccinated is a reasonable step to protect other workers and the public from infectious disease and does not violate anyone’s constitutional rights, Lidyard said, citing a list of legal precedents to support his position – including several court decisions rendered during the current pandemic.
“The courts have ruled for over a century that mandatory vaccination laws are a valid exercise of state police power, and these laws have withstood constitutional challenges,” Lidyard said.
The judge said lawyers had failed to demonstrate that the vaccination order would cause irreparable harm to their clients, one of the main requirements of an injunction.
Diener and lawyer Vanessa DeNiro argued on Thursday that laboratory workers are in skilled jobs, some of them highly classified, so if they are fired or put on extended unpaid leave, they might not be able to to find comparable work elsewhere. It would cause irreparable damage, they said.
Lidyard rejected this argument, saying workers made a choice and could avoid this problem by getting vaccinated.
As difficult as it may be, they are free to seek employment that does not require vaccination, Lidyard said.
A contentious point in the proceedings was the granting of religious exemptions by Triad, followed by the unpaid leave of these employees for an indefinite period. DeNiro called this retaliation and said the employer was firing them rather than reasonably accommodating them.
During Thursday’s hearing, attorney Michael Weil, representing Triad, said unpaid leave is a way to accommodate those on religious exemption while keeping these unvaccinated workers off site. Most have jobs that cannot be done remotely, he said, and many do not cite actual religion but claim that their refusal of the vaccine is an act of conscience, which is not sufficient to this type of exemption.
Lidyard agreed with Weil’s points when making his decision on Friday.
He cited a passage from the 1944 decision of the United States Supreme Court in Prince v. Massachusetts.
“The right to freely practice one’s religion does not include the freedom to expose the community to communicable diseases,” Lidyard said, citing the majority opinion.
Lidyard went on to say that the lab’s policy is neutral and applies to all employees, regardless of their religious beliefs. An employer, he said, must reasonably accommodate those seeking a religious exemption – in this case, using unpaid leave – but is not obligated to make any accommodation the employee wishes.
Diener said he and his clients will discuss their next decision, which could be arbitration instead of continuing with a jury trial.
Lidyard said approval of an injunction request also requires lawyers to show they are likely to win their case, which he believes they haven’t.
“It’s not that their circumstances aren’t compelling, but rather the law just isn’t on their side,” Lidyard said.