ALBUQUERQUE – The mayor of New Mexico’s largest city is telling thousands of municipal workers to prepare for a vaccine mandate in the coming weeks, but union leaders who represent Albuquerque police officers, firefighters and other employees say not so fast.
They say a mandate would amount to a major change of working conditions and that means Mayor Tim Keller would first have to come to the negotiating table to hash out the parameters of any COVID-19 testing requirements and details about whether workers would be entitled to sick time if they have adverse reactions to the vaccine.
The police and fire departments already have voiced concerns about losing personnel if a mandate is imposed.
The push by Keller also comes as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs President Joe Biden’s workplace vaccine rule. The court’s conservative justices have cast doubt on the administration’s authority to issue its vaccine-or-testing requirement.
Keller, a Democrat, sent an email to all city employees late last week, saying federal and state decisions this month will require all city employees to be fully vaccinated.
“We’ve done everything within our control to protect our employees throughout the pandemic, and this is the next step we’re being required to take,” the mayor wrote.
They mayor said during a news conference Tuesday that about 5,000 city employees would be affected. They would have report their vaccination status by Jan. 21 and those who are unvaccinated would be required to test weekly.
Keller said unvaccinated employees will be placed on unpaid leave until they submit a negative test result.
Detective Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, said calls from displeased officers have been nonstop since the mayor sent the email.
“It would be a wild misstep for the mayor’s office to institute any new policies in relation to vaccine mandates without going to the negotiation table first,” Willoughby said, noting that the police union has had the demand to bargain the issue before with the mayor’s office for several months but that has not happened.
Willoughby said vaccine mandates are one of the most divisive and complex issues in the U.S. and the mayor’s office has an unfair expectation to negotiate the matter in under 30 days.
Many businesses and some states already have imposed mandates, and many legal challenges still are pending. In New Mexico, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has ordered health care workers and all state employees to be fully vaccinated.
While no changes are planned when it comes to the state’s vaccination policies, Lujan Grisham’s office said Tuesday that the governor has long encouraged other government bodies and private sector businesses to adopt similar vaccination policies.
Confirmed COVID-19 cases have been skyrocketing because of the more contagious omicron variant, but data so far indicates that many of these positive cases are milder infections that do not require hospitalization. Officials with two of New Mexico’s largest health care providers said during a briefing Monday that infections are happening among vaccinated hospital staff members but symptoms mostly have been mild.
City health officials said Tuesday that vaccinated people can spread the virus and must take precautions. When asked why testing would be limited to only unvaccinated workers, the mayor acknowledged that widespread COVID-19 testing – much like the city’s drug testing program – would be better but is impractical given the shortage of tests.
He said Albuquerque is working on contracting with a testing provider to ensure access to tests for city workers.
“Over 58% of the Albuquerque police personnel that are infected with COVID right now are already vaccinated so the mandate is literally meaningless. It’s not going to prevent any outbreaks in the Albuquerque Police Department or in the city of Albuquerque,” Willoughby said.
He also noted that many personnel in the department already have recovered from COVID-19 infections. In all, state data shows that nearly 320,000 people in New Mexico are listed as recovered.
Albuquerque City Councilor Dan Lewis on Monday proposed measures aimed at reining in the mayor’s authority when it comes to public health orders and to prohibit a vaccine mandate. Lewis said city employees should have peace of mind that they will not have to receive an unwanted vaccine to keep their jobs.