NEW JERSEY (WABC) -- Monday marked the first day of a new vaccine mandate in New Jersey that says all state and school workers must be vaccinated or show proof of a negative test.
Next month, the same mandate goes into effect for workers at child care facilities in the Garden State.
The staggered return for other departments will "make sure we can have a smooth testing rollout," Gov. Phil Murphy said.
Unvaccinated state employees who return to work must test at least once a week, possibly more.
Murphy said "a very high percentage" of state employees are vaccinated, but was unable to say what percentage is returning to work unvaccinated.
The number of state workers has dropped by nearly 3,200 since before the pandemic, or about by 4%. State employees were originally scheduled to return to the office after Labor Day weekend, but Murphy pushed it back to Monday. State employees must wear masks while at work.
A group of employees filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday challenging the order. They say it violates "the liberty and privacy rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution."
The mandates have become a major issue in the governor's race.
The requirement that went in effect today means all state workers, as well as employees at all colleges, universities and schools - public or private - must show proof of vaccination or submit to weekly COVID testing.
"The testing piece, if you're working from home, is not enforced until you come into the office," Murphy said. "But we do expect folks to be vaccinated. And when they come in, if they're not vaccinated for whatever reason, then they're going to have to start doing the testing regime."
"I'm fully vaccinated, so it's like I feel like everyone should get vaccinated," said college student Maariji Abaidullah. "I feel like there's no real issue with getting vaccinated."
Asked if the mandate will force more people to get vaccinated, Abaidullah added, "I mean, probably, yeah. It's tedious getting COVID testing every week. It's gonna get annoying."
But Essex County employee Karina Silva, who is unvaccinated, told Eyewitness News it's not annoying yet.
"If they want to get weekly testing because that's what makes them happy... I've chosen to do weekly testing until I feel more comfortable about the vaccination," she said.
Murphy says the tests must be done at least once or twice a week, but there's nothing stopping employers from requiring them more frequently.
Weeks before New Jersey voters cast their ballots for governor, Murphy's Republican opponent, Jack Ciattarelli says he disagrees with vaccine and mask mandates and will do away with them if elected.
Murphy defended his mandates on Sunday's edition of Up Close with Bill Ritter.
"The delta variant... like every other state... was tough on us and hit us hard like every other state," said Murphy. "We're among the most vaccinated states and have the lowest percentage of COVID patients in ICU units. It's still with us, but I wouldn't trade our hand with any other state."
"I'm all about saving lives," said Ciattarelli. "I never said the pandemic is easy. But I'm also about saving livelihoods. There are a number of inconsistencies, particularly for those on Main Street."
And as is not the case with New York City's mandate, there is a testing option in New Jersey.
And that's one of the reasons the state's teachers and administrator unions say they support the mandate.
"What we did appreciate and we worked with the governor's office was to allow an opt-out option as opposed to a full across the board mandate," said John Abeigon, Pres. Newark Teachers Union.
The teachers union in Newark said 85% of school staff has been vaccinated.
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