More than 160 El Paso Electric employees may be fired if they don’t get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 8, or get a medical or religious exemption approved by the company.
All company employees were notified about the deadline in an Oct. 12 letter.
The company is required to have its 1,166 workers fully vaccinated, or with approved exemptions, by Dec. 8 under an executive order issued by President Joe Biden in September for federal contractors, said Robert Almanzan, EPE senior director of human resources.
The company is a federal contractor because it has contracts with the Fort Bliss Army post in El Paso and Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and other federal contracts, he said.
“We’re following federal guidelines,” Almanzan said. "As an electric utility, safety is very important to us and we see (COVID-19) vaccines as one of the safety measures."
EPE’s subcontractors also are required to follow the federal mandate, EPE officials said.
However, EPE’s only responsibility is to notify some of its suppliers and vendors, of which the company has several hundred, about the mandate, Javier Camacho, an EPE spokesman, said in an email.
A notice is being drafted, and the company’s legal team is determining which subcontractors need to be notified, he said.
Union wants more options for workers
David Bazar, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 960 union, which represents almost 370 unionized EPE employees, said the company’s operations could be adversely affected if it loses workers, especially linemen and power plant operators, and subcontractors. About 90 union members are reported as unvaccinated, he said.
The union supports COVID-19 vaccinations, Bazar noted. But the company could handle the mandate in other ways, and provide other options other than only “vaccination or termination,” he said.
Almanzan said EPE doesn’t expect to lose a significant number of workers under the mandate.
The number of vaccinated workers increased from 84% of its 1,166 workers when the employee letters were sent Oct. 12 to 86% as of Oct. 29, EPE officials reported. The number is expected to grow in coming weeks, Almanzan said.
That means around 163 workers were unvaccinated as of Oct. 29.
The vaccination rate is based on employees' self-reporting. EPE is in the process of collecting vaccination documents from workers.
Longtime employee says he'll choose losing job over getting vaccine
Isaac Miranda, 45, an EPE transmission lineman, said he isn’t convinced the COVID-19 vaccines are safe, and he doesn’t think he should be forced to get one.
“I still believe I have sovereignty over my own body and what to put into it,” Miranda said.
Miranda was infected with COVID-19 last year and had mild symptoms, he said.
“I’m going to file a medical exemption under the fact that I already had COVID before, even though they claim they’re not taking it” as an exemption, Miranda said.
“If they fire me based on that, so be it, I’ll find work somewhere else,” he said. “I really don’t morally feel I can work for a company that’s willing to get rid of their employees like this.
“Almost 23 years here, I haven’t done anything to get me fired. Now, they want to fire me because I’m refusing to take the vaccination that I feel they have no legal authority to do.”
Bazar said some of the other unvaccinated workers share Miranda’s views. A few union members notified him that they plan to file medical or religious exemption forms, he said.
The two-page religious exemption form asks a lot of questions that shouldn’t be asked, including questions about past vaccinations, Bazar said.
For medical exemptions, a doctor or other medical provider must certify a worker can't receive the vaccine and provide the reasons.
No COVID testing option offered
“We (union) don’t agree that (COVID) testing can’t be offered under the mandate.” Bazar said.
Almanzan said the presidential executive order does not provide a testing option.
Regulations drafted by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration are expected to be released soon on how Biden's proposed COVID-19 vaccine requirements for employers with 100 or more employees are to be implemented. The regulations are to have a COVID-19 testing option.
"We'll wait and see what the OSHA order would say to determine what our options are," Almanzan said.
The union Oct. 29 sent a letter to EPE demanding it negotiate terms of the company's vaccine mandate, which it states is required under federal law.
The negotiations need to include the viability of a testing option, the possibility of furloughing affected employees for a time, and the parameters for vaccine exemptions, and other issues, according to the letter.
EPE will allow employees who are in the process of getting vaccinated go beyond the Dec. 8 deadline if needed, Almanzan said. The IBEW's Bazar said the company needs to put that in writing because the letter to employees has a hard, Dec. 8 deadline.
Texas governor's vaccine-related order at odds with Biden mandate
Bazar also said EPE should be following Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's Oct. 11 vaccine-related executive order, especially since EPE mentions it in its letter to employees.
The letter states that employees can seek vaccine exemptions "due to a medical reason or for religious reasons, including exemptions based" on Abbott's executive order.
Abbott's order states that "no entity in Texas" can force anyone to get a COVID-19 vaccine who objects "for any reason of personal conscience, based on a religious belief, or for medical reasons, including prior recovery from COVID-19."
EPE is not offering exemptions for workers who contracted COVID-19.
"It's our understanding that the federal guidelines supersede the state guidelines," EPE's Almanzan said. "The letter acknowledges that we understand that there's a state guideline as well," but the company is following the federal mandate, he said.
Source : https://www.elpasotimes.com/story/news/2021/10/31/unvaccinated-el-paso-electric-workers-may-fired-due-to-federal-mandate-tied-to-covid-19/6197968001/1757