Oregon workers who choose not to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 coronavirus, even if their employers require it, could be deemed ineligible for state unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs.
The acting director of the Oregon Employment Department said recently that there are exceptions under federal law — notably a medical disability or a deeply held religious belief — but it boils down to whether an employer has a "reasonable expectation" that vaccination is necessary for a business to operate.
"In broad strokes, requiring someone to be vaccinated during the midst of a worldwide pandemic is a reasonable policy," Gerstenfeld said. "So, if somebody doesn't follow that policy and they don't have a good reason, it very well could result in them not being eligible for benefits."
While states pay unemployment benefits, they are subject to state and federal laws and the guidance of the U.S. Department of Labor.
"I want to be clear it isn't the employment department making a value judgment as to whether it is a good or bad policy," Gerstenfeld said. "We give employers quite a bit of leeway to run their business the way they want. But when looking at benefit eligibility, it's really about whether the standard they set was a reasonable one."
Oregon's recent surge in infections and hospitalizations due to the delta variant has prompted Gov. Kate Brown to order vaccinations for state workers, plus teachers and other public school staff. She also issued a similar order for health care workers — notably after mandates from Oregon Health & Science University, Kaiser Permanente, PeaceHealth and Legacy Health — and removed an initial alternative for employees to undergo weekly testing instead of vaccination.
A 1989 law raises questions about whether vaccinations can be mandated for health care providers and workers and public safety employees. It says nothing about the authority of other employers to do so.
Gerstenfeld said federal law requires his agency to consider each case by itself, despite the general principle of whether a mandate by an employer is a "reasonable expectation."
"I think the key takeaways are that we have to look at each situation individually," he said. "There are some categories under which people can get benefits even if they don't get vaccinated when their employer tells them they have to. But those are pretty narrow."
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