Oregon officials are back at work on the state’s version of a federal vaccine-or-test mandate for larger businesses — though the U.S. Supreme Court could potentially derail those plans.
State rules were first put on ice in November. That’s when a federal court blocked implementation of the Biden administration’s rule, which requires businesses with more than 100 employees to enact a COVID-19 mandate: that workers be fully vaccinated, or else wear masks at work and get tested for the virus weekly.
A different federal court overturned that ruling last month, allowing the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, to begin implementing its emergency temporary standard. That triggered renewed activity in Oregon as well.
Oregon has its own OSHA program, with jurisdiction over workplace health and safety issues in the state. With the federal rule back in place, Oregon OSHA made plans to adopt a rule that is “at least as effective” as the federal mandate. The state, not federal, rule would then apply to large employers in Oregon.
Oregon OSHA said it is required to adopt the federal standard or a similar one by Jan. 24, 2022. The rule could go into effect by late February.
Significant legal disputes remain, however.
The ongoing legal battles have created a muddy middle for Oregon employers, many of whom are reluctant to mandate vaccines without a clear directive.
The Tillamook County Creamery Association said on Tuesday it was working on plans behind-the-scenes while continuing to encourage employees to get vaccinated and boosted.
“We do intend to offer a weekly testing option for any employees who remain unvaccinated should the mandate be implemented,” Tillamook said in an emailed statement.
The federal vaccine-or-test mandate allows employers to let employees test weekly and wear face masks instead of getting vaccinated. But that choice is up to employers. The rule recognizes medical and religious exemptions to vaccination.
Oregon OSHA has the authority to create a rule that is more strict than the federal rule. The agency declined to comment beyond a statement on its website, which offers no details on what an Oregon mandate could include, should the agency enact something other than the federal version.
Some national companies with a presence in Oregon are already implementing the federal government’s contested vaccine mandates. Starbucks recently told its roughly 220,000 U.S. employees they would have to be vaccinated by Feb. 9 or submit to weekly testing. Baristas will have to pay for the tests themselves and have them administered by a doctor or pharmacist, according to The Wall Street Journal.
As the omicron variant has taken hold in Oregon, some people have reported long waits for tests administered by health care staff, as well as difficulty finding home tests.
Intel, Oregon’s largest corporate employer, previously told its U.S. workforce to get vaccinated by this week — Jan. 4 — or obtain a medical or religious accommodation. The company, which has roughly 21,000 employees in Oregon, said it was complying with a separate mandate for federal contractors, which is also tied up in court.
Many Oregon-grown companies have not landed on policies yet.
Portland-based footwear company Keen, Inc. plans to keep office staff working remotely until April, providing more time to understand the legal landscape. The federal vaccine mandate for big businesses doesn’t require testing for teleworkers who work exclusively from home.
For Freres Lumber Co., the vaccine mandate for larger businesses is now a Supreme Court issue, with an unknown outcome. The company declined to comment on vaccine policy. But in an October statement still posted on the company website this week, the Freres family recognized the life-saving role of COVID-19 vaccines, while also protesting federal vaccine mandates for big businesses and federal contractors.
“We have no interest in becoming the enforcement arm of the Federal government with ad-hoc authoritarian orders and understand the undue stress and strain these ongoing mandates and restrictions place on our employees’ lives,” the statement from Rob, Kyle and Tyler Freres read.
“We do not intend to comply with these orders until all legal challenges have been exhausted and they are truly in force,” the executives wrote.