Officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory said they are prepared to defend the lab’s requirement that its employees be vaccinated against COVID-19, despite multiple legal challenges since the mandate was announced in August and took effect Oct. 15.
The requirement, which applied both to workers at the lab’s main location in Los Alamos and at its satellite location in Carlsbad, called for employees to receive both shots of a COVID-19 vaccine to retain employment with at the lab and with its primary operations contractor Triad National Security.
Some religious or medical exemptions could be offered, officials said in announcing the requirement, addressed on a “case-by-case” basis.
The lab’s mandate followed a similar order from President Joe Biden that all federal employees be vaccinated, recently setting a deadline of Nov. 22.
The announcement brought a series of legal challenges in both district and federal court, as a district judge in Los Alamos recently dismissed a case brought by more than 100 workers who were denied exemptions.
On Oct. 22, a group of eight workers took their arguments to U.S. District Court in the District of New Mexico, filing a lawsuit that sought an injunction to block their termination as they refuse to be vaccinated, citing religious concerns.
While the New Mexico Department of Health declared the widely-used Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do not contain fetal cells, it did report a vaccine from a less-used Johnson and Johnson vaccine used a lining to grow the virus used in the vaccine from a fetus aborted in 1985.
Despite these concerns, Pope Francis in August urged all people to be vaccinated and called it the treatment an “act of love.”
Unpaid leave equals termination?
The suit alleged that even when religious exemptions were granted, the workers were placed on indefinite, unpaid leave, which the plaintiffs argued constituted termination.
Medical exemptions were better accommodated, the suit read, which employees allowed to continue working and getting paid after such a request.
The suit argued the vaccine could have used aborted fetal cells during testing the plaintiffs’ spiritual beliefs precluded them from receiving such medication, arguing if they were terminated or placed on leave for not getting the vaccine the lab was guilty of discrimination.
But Peter Hyde, spokesperson for the lab, said it was prepared to support the vaccine requirement in federal court, arguing it was already upheld at the state level.
He said 99 percent of the lab’s workforce had begun the vaccination process.
“Our most important asset is our workforce, and our reason for requiring employees to be vaccinated is simple: vaccination is the best tool we have to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at LANL,” Hyde said.
“Our vaccination practices have been upheld in state court, over 99% of our workforce has now taken steps to be fully vaccinated, and we will continue to protect the safety of our workers by supporting our vaccine policy.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the federal case said their clients sent two letters to Triad and lab director Thomas Mason asking the policy be reconsidered but were ignored.
Lab accused of discrimination in denying vaccine exemptions
The plaintiffs cited a recent case against Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), a nuclear facility in Tennessee owned by the U.S. Department of Energy, where a U.S. district judge in the the Eastern District of Tennessee filed a restraining order against ORNL contractor UT-Battelle preventing the company from placing non-vaccinated workers on unpaid leave, per local news reports.
“Los Alamos claims to have offered exemptions for those who have sincere religious reasons for not taking a mandatory COVID vaccine, but their one-size-fits-all so-called ‘accommodation’ is flagrantly illegal,” said Special Counsel Tyler Brooks with the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based non-profit law firm representing the workers
“Accommodation by termination has never been a lawful option.”
Brooks accused Triad of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
He said the lab must accommodate “deeply held religious beliefs” of its workers who decline vaccination.
“Los Alamos has clearly failed to comply with Title VII by not even attempting to accommodate employees granted a religious exemption. Instead, they have relegated them all to an indefinite leave without pay, and other punishments,” Brooks said.
“Los Alamos National Laboratory’s purpose is to solve national security challenges, not trample on the constitutionally guaranteed rights of its employees.”
According to the lawsuit Los Alamos terminated 185 workers on Oct. 15 when they declined vaccines, while another 153 were placed on indefinite leave without pay, citing reporting from the Los Alamos Reporter.
The suit argued those workers could have instead been allowed to work remotely, ensuring the virus was not spread.
“Accomodating these employees working from home would impose no hardship on LANL at all, let alone an undue hardship,” the suit read.
“Yet LANL made no effort to attempt to accommodate plaintiffs or others granted religious exemptions, instead simply issuing a uniform indefinite leave without pay to all.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.