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Thousands of Albuquerque municipal government employees have until next Friday to prove they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or commit to a weekly testing regimen to demonstrate they are not infected with the virus.
Mayor Tim Keller, who had so far refrained from implementing any employee vaccine requirements, announced the update Tuesday, saying the city is preparing to meet the standards set out by the federal government’s workplace safety organization. The rules, issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, apply to employers with at least 100 workers. The city is budgeted for about 6,300 employees.
To be considered fully vaccinated, an employee must have had their second shot in a two-shot series (like Pfizer or Moderna) or their single-dose shot (like Johnson and Johnson) at least two weeks prior.
Keller stressed that the city is not mandating vaccines since employees can choose the testing path instead, a requirement that would start Feb. 7; however, those who opt for testing and do not show a negative test result each week risk being placed on unpaid leave. Those who test positive can use their accrued sick leave.
The city’s plan drew some quick criticism. Albuquerque Area Firefighters Union President Justin Cheney said the union believes its members have the right to make their own medical decisions and that “numerous” firefighters contacted him out of frustration on Tuesday. While Keller said during Tuesday’s news conference that the federal and state standards give him no “flexibility” in how to apply rules, Cheney said the mayor is still obligated to work out certain terms with the union, including what happens if tests are unavailable and who pays for them.
“He has room to negotiate,” Cheney said, adding that the union could take their concerns to the Labor Management Relations Board if the city administration does not pursue such negotiations.
The head of Albuquerque’s police union has expressed similar concerns about the lack of negotiation. He also noted that even vaccinated workers can and do contract COVID-19.
A mandate is “not going to prevent any outbreaks in the Albuquerque Police Department or in the city of Albuquerque,” Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association President Shaun Willoughby told the Associated Press.
The city expects employees who choose testing to do it on their own time; however, those who cannot manage that may ask supervisors to authorize testing during work hours, a city spokeswoman said.
Officials on Tuesday acknowledged that tests have become increasingly hard to find.
Keller said the city is working to provide access to testing via a contract with an outside provider but there is no arrangement yet.
The OSHA rules have faced legal challenges and are presently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even if the high court strikes down the federal rules, Keller left open the possibility that he would still institute something similar at the local level. He said such a decision would likely happen in mid-February and depend on several factors.
“What I’ll do is I think what we’ve done in the past over COVID – if we think it’s necessary because of the safety of the city, the public health of the city or because of keeping city services running, we will certainly be open to taking unilateral action,” he said.
Currently, 45 Albuquerque firefighters are out because they either tested positive for COVID or suspect they may have it and are awaiting test results, Albuquerque Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Emily Jaramillo said during Tuesday’s news conference. But she said that has not interrupted service.
While case numbers have soared in New Mexico and nationwide over the past few weeks, Keller said COVID has not derailed city operations due to employee absences, but that remains a concern.
“Systematically, services have not been affected, and that’s a great thing,” he said. “That’s one of our goals and that’s why it is important that we adhere to these requirements.”
Leadership at Bernalillo County – which employs about 2,700 people in the metro area – had in September announced it would not require employees to get vaccinated, but offered incentives if they did and said the policy could change in the future. Asked Tuesday if Bernalillo County too would heed the OSHA rules, a spokesman said “the county is currently discussing the issue” and would provide more information later this week.