San Juan County Commission adopts COVID-19 vaccination status, testing policy
Supreme Court challenge could allow policy to be suspended or rescinded
- Adoption of the policy brings the county in line with the emergency temporary standard adopted by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
- It requires that weekly testing of unvaccinated employees begin by Feb. 9.
- On that same date, unvaccinated employees also would be required to wear a face covering.
FARMINGTON — A policy requiring San Juan County employees to report their COVID-19 vaccination status by Jan. 10, and to submit to weekly testing and wear face coverings in the workplace if they are unvaccinated, was adopted unanimously by the County Commission during its Jan. 4 meeting.
The policy, which brings the county in line with the emergency temporary standard adopted by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, requires that weekly testing of unvaccinated employees begin by Feb. 9. On that same date, unvaccinated employees also would be required to wear a face covering.
County Manager Mike Stark introduced the measure before the vote by explaining that OSHA's emergency temporary standard offered two pathways forward for entities that employ more than 100 workers. The first pathway, he said, was the implementation of a mandatory vaccination policy, and he went to great lengths to emphasize that San Juan County had no interest in adopting such a policy.
The second pathway, he said, is the policy the county was considering adopting. Stark said a good deal of confusion about the county's policy had been circulating in the days leading up to the commission meeting, and he wished to clear the air.
"They don't have to get vaccinated, so let's make sure that's clear," Stark said of county employees. "They have to get tested. And that testing process would start Feb. 9."
Stark said county officials will endeavor to make the testing process as easy as possible. The testing will be free, and Stark said a mobile testing site may be set up in the parking lot of the county administration building at 100 S. Oliver Drive in Aztec.
County employees who are vaccinated would be required to provide proof of vaccination, according to the terms of the policy. Any employee who chooses to be vaccinated must be fully vaccinated by Feb. 23. The policy also includes exemptions for religious or medical reasons.
But the policy could be a short-lived one, depending on the results of an anticipated U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a challenge to the OSHA emergency temporary standard. Stark said the court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case later this week.
If the court rules against OSHA, a provision in the policy will allow Stark to suspend or rescind it.
Stark said even with that court challenge looming, the county — and every other entity with 100 employees or more — was required to comply with that Jan. 10 deadline for aligning with the emergency temporary standard. All such entities are being required by the federal agency to make a good-faith effort to comply with the standard or potentially face severe penalties, he said.
Stark said OSHA has the power to assess a $14,000 fine per employee per incident for noncompliance. If San Juan County had 100 unvaccinated employees who were not getting tested, he said, it could face a penalty of $1.4 million every week.
Adopting a policy that puts the county in compliance with the OSHA standard, he said, was the prudent course of action for the commission.
County Commissioner Steve Lanier said he had been contacted by four people expressing alarm about the proposed policy, and he indicated the commission was taking action on it reluctantly.
"We are not in favor of this mandate as a commission," he said. "We are just putting a policy in place depending on what the Supreme Court does so that we're ahead of the game … "
Commissioner GloJean Todacheene spoke in favor of the measure, explaining she believed it was the only way for the county to protect itself from a potential federal penalty.
"It's good to be … proactive," she said.
The policy then was passed unanimously with no further discussion.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or email@example.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.