Protecting the health and safety of any workplace is paramount to a happy and productive workforce, as well as an essential ingredient for organizational success. Even before the recent pandemic, employers and employees strived for decades to set ever higher standards of workplace protections to help ensure people would be safe in their jobs. Along with these workforce protections, the country undertook a parallel legal process to create new standards to protect employees’ civil liberties and their privacy when it came to their personal health and medical backgrounds. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is a byproduct of this effort to grant medical privacy rights to every American.
The COVID pandemic has forced us all to reimagine the traditional workplace; arguably some of those changes have been good, but there have also been some that could be considered bad. One of the more troubling aspects of this post-pandemic environment is the willingness of some employers to force employees to take the vaccine as a condition of keeping their jobs.
This type of effort is happening right now in Socorro County as the nonprofit organization that operates the Very Large Array (VLA), the satellite field made famous by the blockbuster movie Contact, has announced it will soon be enforcing a vaccine requirement. Sadly, this shortsighted and anti-employee choice effort will likely result in 60 people losing their high-paying jobs.
Like many other states across the country, New Mexico’s economy has been severely impacted by the pandemic, with economic hardship in rural areas being especially bad. In other words, rural New Mexico, such as Socorro County, cannot afford another major blow to its economic well-being, but it will happen if these 60 people employed at the VLA lose their jobs. Sadly, the economic impact of losing these high-paying jobs is significantly greater in Socorro than it would be in Albuquerque or Santa Fe, and these are not lost jobs due to budget cuts or a business relocation, it is simply an unnecessary decision by management.
Not only will our neighbors lose their sources of income, but future funding for the VLA could also be in jeopardy. The VLA is scheduled for a major expansion in the next couple of years, which could result in billions of dollars of new federal investment coming to our community. However, the loss of these jobs, as well as the inability of the VLA to find highly skilled replacement workers, could terminate this planned expansion. Strangely, the VLA’s management has admitted as much, yet still insists on the vaccine mandate.
Some will say “just get the shot and move on,” but people have many legitimate grounds for not wanting to get vaccinated – including health reasons and religious beliefs. Regardless of why some decide not to get the vaccine, it is simply unacceptable to force people into a position where they must decide between their livelihoods and their personal beliefs.
This “either-or” scenario is also unnecessary as management of the VLA can protect their employees by requiring masks for those unvaccinated, conduct weekly COVID testing and maintain social distancing and other safe practices. Implementing these proven alternatives would also give employees a real choice in whether they need to get the vaccine or not. It is also fair to ask the VLA’s management one simple question: If hospitals are not requiring their medical staffs to be vaccinated in order to work, why is it so important to impose a vaccine mandate which threatens the livelihood of people and the economic future of our rural community?
Radio antennas in a tight formation at the Very Large Array near Socorro.