By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN Associated Press | ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico already has among the highest U.S. unemployment rates and state Republican legislative leaders said Thursday that they fear President Joe Biden’s plan to require vaccinations or COVID-19 testing for large employers could do more damage to the job market of the poverty-stricken state.
New Mexico Senate Republican Leader Greg Baca said the mandate is sowing more distrust of the federal government and he urged Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to push back against what he called federal overreach.
“We are already facing a significant worker shortage,” he told The Associated Press in an email. “This excessive policy may very well be the final nail in the coffin for many more local businesses.”
U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements made public Thursday call for workers of companies with 100 or more employees to be vaccinated by Jan. 4 or be tested weekly. Failure to comply could result in penalties of nearly $14,000 per violation.
Federal officials also left open the possibility of expanding the mandate to smaller employers.
More than a dozen Republican attorneys general in other states have said they would fight the requirements.
In New Mexico, the legislative session that begins in January is limited to budget issues. Republican lawmakers said it’s possible that one or more bills could be introduced to provide relief for local businesses being forced to comply with federal and state mandates.
New Mexico’s Democrat-dominated state government was among the first to push hard for vaccinating adults.
Interest in inoculation has since tapered off and the state’s vaccination rate has been stagnant at less than 73%. State officials announced Wednesday they aim to have more than 50% of children ages 5 to 11 vaccinated as part of the latest campaign.
Lujan Grisham’s public health order already requires shots for state employees, health care workers and educators, accounting for much of the state’s workforce. But some critics have raised questions about whether her administration might go further and require booster shots since immunity in the state appears to be waning.
“Our focus right now is on MLG (the governor) and the mandates she has already imposed and potential mandates she has yet to announce,” said House GOP Leader Jim Townsend of Artesia. “New Mexicans simply want to get back to their lives, but continue to run into power hungry politicians at every turn.”
The governor’s office did not comment directly on the federal vaccine requirement. Officials with the state Health Department have said any discussions on whether the state would consider reimposing stricter public health mandates or expanded vaccine requirements have not yet occurred.
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokesperson for the governor, said Thursday that New Mexico continues to have one of the highest vaccination rates in the West. Sackett said the state’s goal is to get as many people vaccinated as possible and that vaccinating younger children will be a big step.
Steve Pearce, chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, described the federal vaccine mandate for employers as “a blatant infringement on our civil liberties.”
“To threaten employees who don’t comply is even more dangerous and insulting,” he said. “Americans have the right to choose, and this is another violation of our constitutional rights.”
Confirmed COVID-19 cases are creeping back up in New Mexico despite higher vaccination rates and a mask mandate for indoor public spaces. State data shows more than 22,000 confirmed infection cases have been reported over the past month, including infections among vaccinated people.
State Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase on Wednesday pointed to the infectious nature of the delta variant as a factor driving the surge. He said all regions of the state are seeing an uptick in infections and that community spread remains high statewide.