With over 90% of city government’s workforce vaccinated against COVID-19, Portland officials are now considering expanding their vaccine mandate to a new group: their contractors.
Portland’s new chief procurement officer, Biko Taylor, says he will release a final vaccination policy for the companies the city has hired for construction work and other contracting jobs by Oct. 29.
The proposal has already proved contentious. Some contractors argue the city should harness its purchasing power to encourage workers to get the shot. Other companies warn a huge fraction of their workforce will walk off the job, decimating their business and slowing down massive infrastructure projects on taxpayer’s dime. Studies have found vaccine hesitancy is particularly high within the construction industry.
“We do know the typical blue-collar workers we employ are pretty strong in their convictions,” said Ryan McDonald, the president of Northwest Utility Contractors Association. “They’re not going to do it.”
Many contractors in the state have likely already been impacted by other vaccine mandates, or they will be soon. Federal mandates will apply to any company that does work with the federal government or has more than 100 employees. Gov. Kate Brown’s vaccination mandate impacts any companies contracting with Oregon executive branch agencies. Multnomah County has also considered requiring contractors they work with to get vaccinated.
Portland’s policy has inspired vehement pushback among the companies that have so far dodged other government mandates. Opponents of including city contractors in the vaccination requirement worry the impact won’t just be on their business, but will reverberate across Portland.
McDonald, who is also the president of an excavating company, estimates half of his 80-person workforce will walk off the job. That could mean a slowdown on the Bull Run Water Filtration system, a new water treatment plant the city is building where he works as a subcontractor. The head of construction contractor HP Civil, responsible for an eagerly-awaited bridge over I-84 that will connect the Lloyd District and the Central Eastside neighborhood, estimates about 40% of the company’s 50 employees will quit.
As of now, the city appears to be stopping short of requiring all its contractors to get vaccinated. Taylor, the chief procurement officer, said his office is currently leaning toward requiring vaccines for contractors who are doing more than 15 minutes of work indoors on a city-owned work site.
But other contractors think these concerns of a diminished workforce are overblown and pale in comparison to the danger COVID-19 presents.
“I would not predict how many [employees] we would lose,” said Michael Burch with the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters. “But I know that buildings still need to be built.”
Earlier this month, the city held a Zoom meeting to get contractors’ opinions on a potential vaccine policy. Burch describes the meeting as “fiery and kind of absurd.” A proponent of a vaccination policy, he said he was outnumbered by those who didn’t see the point.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me because people are stacked up like cordwood outside of hospitals,” Burch said. “I was taken aback.”
Fears of mass layoffs have become common as federal, state and local governments craft their own vaccine mandates. Local officials have warned of an exodus of medical workers and firefighters and had urged the governor to delay her Oct 18. deadline for state employees, health care staff and school employees to get vaccinated. She didn’t, though she did provide members of two influential unions with six more weeks.
It’s too early to say what the impact has been on the workforce. What is clear, however, is that vaccine mandates are a critical way to encourage people to get vaccinated, which health care experts say is the most effective way to prevent another wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations.
After implementing vaccination mandates for employees, both Multnomah County and Portland have vaccination rates higher than the Portland area. Adults in the Portland metropolitan area have a vaccination rate of 80%. For Multnomah County employees, the number is 92%, as of October 13.
The city released numbers late Monday showing that roughly 91% of the city’s 6,146 employees were vaccinated by the Oct. 18 deadline. Three-hundred and forty-two (5.6%) had been approved for a medical or religious exception.
Ninety-one employees (1.5%) refused to get vaccinated and are scheduled to lose their jobs Tuesday. The city’s numbers do not include members of the Portland Police Bureau, who remain exempt from vaccination.