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Workplace vaccine requirements will rely on patchwork state and local mandates.

COURTESY PHOTO: TVF&R - Paramedic Megan Rye, left, who works out of TVF&R Station No. 35 in King City, became TVF&Rs first COVID-19 vaccine recipient in Wilsonville.

When you dial 9-1-1 in Washington County, how likely will the first-responder you interact with be vaccinated? The answer to that question is a little complicated with patchwork local vaccine requirements and a federal appeals court blocking the Biden Administration's vaccine-or-test mandate.

The mandate, announced on Nov. 4, requires companies with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4, or that they regularly get tested for the virus.

Days later, the national Occupational Safety and Health Administration, several states and a number of special interest groups sued the administration, calling the mandate a government overreach.

Despite the block, Oregon OSHA had initially intended to create its own vaccine mandate plan by Saturday, Dec. 4. But now the agency states that it's unlikely that it will meet that deadline.

"Oregon OSHA is continuing discussions with stakeholders, and at this point, we do not anticipate adopting a rule by Dec. 4, 2021," the Oregon OSHA website states. "If the stay remains in place, our timelines will be adjusted accordingly. We will continue to monitor the lawsuit and evaluate our options."

The future outcome of the lawsuit remains unclear. So workplace vaccine requirements will rely on patchwork state and local mandates in the meantime.

"While it doesn't look like that the state is planning to adopt the new rule within the next couple of weeks, we are evaluating city policy so that we are prepared if this happens," said Beaverton spokesperson, Dianna Ballish.

Who is required to get the vaccine in Washington County?

Emergency response and medical workers are at an exceptionally high riskof contracting COVID-19.

While these workers are dying in large numbers from the disease and often interacting with the nation's most vulnerable populations, there has been quite a bit of resistance from these same workers from getting the shot.

There is no state-wide mandate requiring first responders specifically to get the vaccine, but Gov. Kate Brown implemented new vaccine measures in August to address Oregon's hospital crisis. State employees -- including employees in public safety, correctional, and health care settings -- are required to get the shot. Brown also announced a measure later that month requiring all Oregon health care workers, K-12 educators, staff, and volunteers to be fully vaccinated. Some emergency responders in Oregon fall under this executive order.

Around 85% of state employees have reported vaccination, said Oregon Health Authority spokesperson Erica Heartquist. Just over 11% of state employees have received either a medical or religious exception and .5% of state employees have been placed on paid administrative leave.

About 1,267 Oregon State Police employees fall under the mandate. According to data released by OSP, about 78% of employees are fully vaccinated, while 15% requested an exemption. Four employees resignedover the mandate. Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue firefighters are licensed medical personnel, so the mandate applies to them as well, said TVF&R spokesperson Cassandra Ulven.

The agency reported a 92.5% percent vaccination with 38 employees requesting a religious exemption, Ulven said.

"Though we are already required to wear surgical masks at all times at TVF&R work sites, unvaccinated personnel will have to wear a higher level N95," she said. "As far as personal protective equipment worn while providing patient care, all responders have to wear N95 regardless of vaccination status for patient and responder protection."

Washington County has 332 employees who fall under the vaccine mandate for health care workers and staff who work in education settings, said county spokesperson Julie McCloud. Of those employees, 24 positions are with the Sheriff's Office, two of which requested a medical or religious exemption. The rest are fully vaccinated.

In September, the city of Tigard joined Portland in mandating that all employees get the COVID-19 vaccine. But just like Portland, police were exempt from getting the vaccine. City officials say they are still negotiating with local unions -- SEIU Local 503/OPEU and the Tigard Police Officers Association -- in the meantime.

While Tigard Police are exempt from getting the shot, 67% of the department voluntarily reported to the city that they were vaccinated.

Beaverton has not implemented a vaccine mandate, but some employees are self-reporting their vaccination status. In Beaverton, 70% of the city's 652 employees are vaccinated. Those who aren't vaccinated must wear a KN95 respirator with a filtration efficiency of 90 percent or greater.

In Hillsboro, 97% of the city's Fire & Rescue Department are vaccinated. 75% of the city's police force are vaccinated. One police employee was approved for an exemption request.

How exemptions work

Under the state and local disabilities law, and various governmental regulations, guidances, and protocols, employers must allow vaccine exemptions for valid medical or disability reasons, said Lewis & Clark law professor Henry Drummonds. These exemptions must be supported by medical opinion.

"Even if many employees oppose mandated vaccines, there will perhaps be fewer of these requests in any given workforce in the medical/disability context compared to the religious exemption requests," he said.

Religious exemptions don't require independent verification equivalent to a medical opinion, which is why it's unsurprising that vaccine exemptions at agencies like TVF&R are all religious exemptions, he added.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in October released guidance laying out how employers should deal with religious accommodations. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on religion.

This means that employees and job applicants have the right to request an exemption or reasonable religious accommodation from any employer requirement that conflict with their "sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances."

Employers should generally presume someone's religious belief is "sincere," but there can be some discretion, said Portland employment law attorney Sharia Mayfield.

"The employee using a boilerplate general online form, a documented history of not being religious, and inability to articulate a specific religious objection all weigh in favor of not having a sincerely held religious objection," she said.

Mayfield specifies that it is not the role of the employer (or the courts) to litigate what constitutes a true religious belief The Pope or other religious authorities can't do that either.

"The standard is based on the subjective sincere views of the adherents who profess the objection," she said.

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