On July 18, the Journal carried an op-ed piece by Rep. Gail Armstrong that asked, “Why is the (Very Large Array) forcing vaccine on employees?” While I am not privy to the reasoning used by the VLA administration, I can think of at least three reasons that the VLA might mandate the safe and highly effective COVID vaccine in the middle of this pandemic, just as many schools, colleges, hospitals and employers around the country have mandated it.
First, the VLA may have acted to protect its employees. As Armstrong pointed out, protecting the health of employees is “paramount to a happy and productive workforce,” and most employers feel obliged to offer their employees a safe working environment. As COVID begins to surge in New Mexico once again, and the highly communicable and very dangerous Delta variant becomes the most common form of the disease throughout our state, one might expect employers to ask how to protect their employees from hospitalization and death from this disease. Where (roughly) half of New Mexicans remain unvaccinated, but 99% of serious cases are among the unvaccinated, the best way to protect employees is pretty obvious – make sure all employees are vaccinated. Nothing else is nearly as effective as universal vaccination, which would effectively eliminate COVID. And there is only one way for an employer to substantially increase the number of vaccinated people, and that is to mandate the vaccination. No one is required by an employer to get vaccinated – just as no one is required to abide by the company’s office hours or dress code – but it can and should be a condition of continued employment.
Second, the VLA may have acted to protect its legitimate business interest. It is impossible to run a productive business when key employees are out sick or are in medically mandated quarantine awaiting test results. When an illness reaches pandemic levels, it is reasonable for an enterprise like the VLA to consider how to protect itself by protecting its workforce from being decimated by sickness. The VLA simply cannot afford to have any virus disable any significant part of its workforce. The only sure way to avoid that is to require vaccination
Third, the VLA may be concerned about the physical and economic health of the community in which it operates – Socorro County. A low vaccination rate not only increases the physical risk for residents of the county, but it increases the risk to the local economy. As we look across the country, to Arkansas and Missouri, for example, and to rural areas everywhere, we see that a low vaccination rate in the midst of a wide distribution of the Delta variant means that more and more businesses are forced by illness to close and the whole community economy is affected. Where an enterprise like the VLA must depend upon attracting good scientists from around the country, it needs to show that its employees can live in safe and vibrant communities. And if there are 60 high-paid scientists at the VLA who refuse the mandated vaccination, don’t worry – they will be replaced by 60 others who will be paid the same high salaries and bring the same economic benefit to the community.
No one is arguing that employers can require that their employees receive experimental drugs. The COVID vaccines are approved for “emergency use” during the pandemic, but they are hardly experimental. Over 300 million doses have been administered in the United States alone, and they have already been better studied than most other fully approved medications. No one is arguing that those with legitimate medical or religious reasons to avoid vaccination should be required to get them. Indeed, one reason that others need to be vaccinated is to protect those who cannot be vaccinated for just these reasons. And even those who argue that the government should not require vaccination of its citizens must realize that an individual employer mandate is a lot different from a statewide government order. When we put our fellow employees at risk, and when we undermine our employer’s ability to get work done, and when we contribute to the contraction of our community’s economy, we should be held accountable.