PORTLAND, Ore. – Despite pressure from Governor Kate Brown for educators to get COVID-19 vaccination priority, many in this group could be exempt from vaccine requirements.
The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) explains employer rights online and, for the most part, explains that employers can mandate vaccinations.
Joseph Haddad is an employment attorney with JJH Law in Portland. He said many employers are likely to face a dilemma if more people return to work during the vaccine roll out.
“Resigning could certainly be an option,” he said of employees who choose to skip vaccination.
However, Haddad pushed for a more balanced approach. For example, employers may require unvaccinated personnel to work from home or follow stricter safety protocols with masks and protective gear.
A detailed OPB report also highlighted employers who want to create incentives for vaccinated employees.
At the national level, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said the American company should make vaccinations mandatory for employees.
“Because that’s the only way we can get back to normal,” Kirby told CNBC. “Back to full capacity in restaurants, back to Disneyland open, back to Broadway shows open, and office buildings full.”
However, in Oregon, according to Oregon BOLI, several large groups are exempt from such vaccination requirements:
- Individuals who are licensed or certified to provide healthcare services
- Healthcare workers
- Law enforcement officers
- Corrections, Probation Officers, and Probation Officers
- Many of these areas have higher levels of exposure and risk of COVID-19 in Oregon. Prisons, for example, have some of the largest workplace outbreaks in the state.
- Some unionized workers, including many educators, are also exempt from collective agreements.
Governor Kate Brown prioritized teachers and school staff over seniors to receive COVID-19 vaccinations with the intent of getting students back to school.
“Distance learning takes a real toll on our children,” Brown told KGW last week. “You need to see the inside of a classroom before the school year ends.”
KGW reached out to several Oregon school districts to assess how to address challenges related to vaccine hesitation and rules for unvaccinated staff.
Beaverton School District spokeswoman Shellie Bailey-Shah responded that the district “strongly encourages all employees to be vaccinated. However, whether an employee is vaccinated or not is not considered in future placement in hybrid or comprehensive distance learning models.”
She added that laws are preventing the district from asking educators whether or not they have chosen the vaccine.
As per civil rights and disability laws, employers with mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies must also consider exemption requests from people with genuine religious beliefs or disabilities that prevent them from being vaccinated.
Oregon BOLI states that employers are not required to grant the exemption if it presents “undue hardship” to the company or a “direct threat” to the safety of the worker or others. In these cases, an employer is asked to work with the employee in suitable accommodation.
Haddad said this puts employers in a difficult position.
“If you don’t need vaccines and they are available, are you putting the rest of your employees at risk?” he said.
In cases where an employer does not provide shelter or does not adequately address safety concerns, it may be necessary to file complaints with Oregon OSHA. Ultimately, however, he said during this unpublished vaccine roll out that the legal challenges are a gray area.
“There’s a difference between what appears unfair or wrong and what is potentially illegal,” Haddad said.