Unions contend with vaccine mandates


By Don McIntosh

With the Delta variant producing a second massive wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, public and private employers are tightening requirements on workers to get vaccinated or else face regular testing or in some cases termination.

In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown has mandated that by Oct. 18 all health care workers, school employees and executive branch employees show either proof they are fully vaccinated or documentation of a medical or religious exception.

At the City of Portland, a mandate passed by a unanimous City Council will require the city’s roughly 6,800 employees, including union members, to present proof of vaccination, get a medical or religious exemption or be put on a list for termination.

What’s been unions’ response? By and large they’re encouraging members to get vaccinated to ensure they and co-workers have a safe workplace, but they’re also trying to protect the rights and the jobs of workers who haven’t been vaccinated. And while not contesting that employers have a legal obligation to impose the requirements, they’re seeking to negotiate terms.

“It is our analysis that … employers have the legal right to mandate vaccines,” said SEIU Local 503 director Melissa Unger in a press statement. Local 503 represents 24,000 state workers who are subject to the mandate. “However, the State can not simply declare a vaccine mandate and walk away. They must listen to essential workers and address our concerns with how this policy is implemented.”

Local 503 initiated negotiations with the state to secure concessions like paid time off to take the vaccine.

“We would certainly encourage all nurses who can to get vaccinated,” said Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) spokesperson Kevin Mealy. “The evidence and science is clear that the vaccines are effective.” Mealy said the union does anticipate some nurses and other health care workers will choose to find other employment rather than get the vaccine. “Nursing and health care workers live in the same communities we all live in, where there are divisions on this issue,” Mealy said.

According to the Oregon Health Authority, 73% of health care workers are vaccinated, somewhat higher than the 69% of adults in the population at large.

Some employers are taking measures that go farther. The Washington-headquartered PeaceHealth hospital network is putting unvaccinated workers on unpaid leave even if they have a vaccine exemption approved. In Lane County, more than 100 PeaceHealth employees have been placed on unpaid leave. ONA is fighting that discipline through the grievance process and with an unfair labor practice charge.

In Oregon, those who end up terminated for refusing to comply with the mandate shouldn’t expect to receive unemployment insurance benefits. The Oregon Employment Department has said that although unemployment claims are adjudicated on a case-by-case basis, those terminated for refusing to be vaccinated probably won’t be found eligible for unemployment benefits, except in special circumstances.


In Washington, mandates issued by Gov. Jay Inslee require vaccinations for 60,000 state employees and 400,000 workers in health care, nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and adult family homes. Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, lists the requirements and suggested union bargaining approaches at wslc.org/covid-vaccine. 


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