Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) could be taken to court for mandating its employees receive vaccines against COVID-19 after a group of workers filed a lawsuit against the lab’s primary contractor Triad National Security.
The suit stemmed from the denial of applications for medical or religious exemptions from the vaccine requirement filed by employees of the lab since it announced they would be required to be vaccinated in August.
In an executive order filed by President Joe Biden, all federal employees including those that work at federal facilities around the country, will be required to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8.
But in the lawsuit, the Los Alamos employees contended they were unduly denied exemptions and forced to be vaccinated, harassed by email and text reminders to get a vaccine, and threatened with termination if they failed to receive their shots.
They also alleged they were forced to take multiple COVID-19 exams involving nasal swabs that “caused harm” to the plaintiffs, and required to wear protective face masks intended to slow the spread of the virus despite what the lawsuit argued was “scientific authority” that masks do not protect from transmission.
Los Alamos National Laboratory spokesperson Jennifer Talhelm said the lab was “unable” to comment on the pending litigation.
She said COVID-19 vaccines were required for all lab employees, contractors, subcontractors and those working at LANL’s Carlsbad location.
“Over 96 percent of our employees have already received at least one dose of the vaccine, and that number continues to grow,” Talhelm said. “Vaccination is in the best interest of public health and best protects our most valuable asset—our workforce.”
The efficacy of mask wearing in slowing the spread of COVID-19 was well documented and affirmed by scientific experts throughout the pandemic, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Director of the lab Thomas Mason, Medical Director Sara Pasqualoni, the lab itself and Triad were listed as defendants.
About 100 employees were listed as plaintiffs in the suit, some as 80 listed as “John or Jane Doe.” The employees who disclosed their name in the suit were were all listed as residents of Los Alamos, Santa Fe or Rio Arriba counties where the main lab is located.
It was unclear if any of the unnamed plaintiffs were employees of the Carlsbad location.
The suit called on a judge to file an injunction to prevent employees from being terminated if they fail to get vaccinated by the Oct. 15 deadline established by the lab, and order financial damages be paid to the plaintiffs along with attorney fees.
“The actions and failures to act of the defendants outlined in the complaint constitute common-law battery, amount to retaliatory findings under New Mexico law, violate public policy which includes aforementioned constitutional principles requiring consent to treatment, discriminated against plaintiffs in violation of the New Mexico Human Rights Act and the New Mexico Constitution and constitute medical negligence,” the suit read.
Vaccines ‘the best tool we have’ against COVID-19
In a memo to workers announcing the lab’s vaccine requirement, Mason said the mandate was needed to create a safe working environment and in response to a rise in COVID-19 infections over the summer attributed to the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus.
He also pointed to the Food and Drug Administration’s recent approval of Pfizer’s vaccine in justifying the requirement for employees, reporting 85 percent of Los Alamos workers were already vaccinated at the time of the announcement on Aug. 23 and that vaccines were available through the lab’s Occupational Medicine Office.
“The best tool we have is vaccines,” Mason wrote in a memo. “With the recent announcement of full Food and Drug Administration approval for the Pfizer vaccine, along with the rapidly increasing number of infections, LANL has decided to make vaccines mandatory for all regular employees and on-site contractors and on-site subcontractors.
“This requirement will apply to all employees working on-site, those teleworking, and all new hires.”
A month earlier, a cease desist notice was sent to Mason and Triad by a group known as New Mexico Stands Up!. The letter made it clear the employees did not want to be masked, tested or vaccinated.
The group, which purported to represent a “large group” of Los Alamos employees argued such requirements would violate their rights under federal and state law and threatened a lawsuit.
The letter went on to detail multiple, largely discredited, arguments against the effectiveness and safety of actions recommended or required by government agencies to stem the spread of COVID-19.
“Please be advised that the Undersigned Counsel represents a large group of employees at Los Alamos National Laboratory,” the letter read. “This letter serves as formal notice to cease and desist all actions related to mandates requiring employees to wear a face mask, submit to COVID-19 tests or be injected with the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment.”
Los Alamos investigated for potential radiation exposure
Multiple incidents at the lab between February and July triggered a federal investigation at LANL by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Enterprise Assessment’s Office of Enforcement, per a Sept. 23 notice to Triad.
The Department reported it intended to investigate potential noncompliance with nuclear safety program requirements stemming from the incidents.
The incident included a major flood of rooms at the lab on July 19, 2021 of water believed to be radioactive.
A report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said 200 gallons was spilled in LANL’s plutonium facility after a worker did not properly close a valve.
The water moved into a ventilation header, draining into an inactive glovebox.
An alarm sounded but was not acted on, the report read, as workers “thought it was an expected alarm during the maintenance evolution.”
The water spread radioactive contamination to the floors of adjacent rooms and into the basement.
No one was reported injured or contaminated in the incident.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.