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Despite federal lawsuit, Oregon on track to create vaccine-or-test rule for large companies

Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Although a federal rule is currently blocked by an appeals court, Oregon officials are still going to try and meet a Dec. 4 deadline to require employees at large companies to get vaccinated or be tested every week for COVID-19.

Although a federal appeals court has blocked the Biden Administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large companies, Oregon is continuing to create its own rule.

As soon as the Biden Administration announced vaccine and testing requirements for companies with 100 or more employees, Oregon had 30 days to come up with its own rule that was “at least as effective” as the federal one. That gave the state until Dec. 4.

The rule requires companies with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4 or that they get tested for the coronavirus every week.

But just a few days after the announcement from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, about two-dozen states — as well as businesses and special-interest groups — sued, calling the rule a government overreach.

Oregon is one of 21 states that has its own workplace safety agency, so it has to create its own plan that is as effective, if not more stringent, than the federal one. Although the federal rule is currently blocked by an appeals court, Oregon OSHA is still going to try to meet the Dec. 4 deadline.

“The outcome of the legal situation remains unknown, as does its potential impact on our timeline in Oregon,” said Oregon OSHA spokesman Aaron Corvin in an email to OPB. “At the same time – and in line with our obligations as a state program and for the sake of preparedness – we will continue to work on a rule, including engaging with stakeholders.”

Oregon OSHA hasn’t released many details about the state rule or how it will determine whether it’s as effective as the federal rule. Corvin said it will be an “iterative process,” in that Oregon OSHA will submit its plan to federal agencies for feedback before it’s finalized.

The federal rule has other caveats attached to it: employers need to pay workers for the time they take to get vaccinated, as well as any sick leave that may result from side effects. Unvaccinated employees need to pay for their own weekly tests and they need to stay masked in the workplace.

Some businesses and special interest groups are concerned that these requirements will scare away employees in a market that’s already thinly staffed.

“You can have job applicants that are resistant and not being able to get the work done, not being able to get products to market in time,” said Paloma Sparks, vice president of Oregon Business & Industry, a business advocacy group. “If we have truckers that don’t want to get vaccinated, then we’ve got more supply chain issues than we already have right now.”

It’s unclear when Oregon’s rule would take effect. If the rule isn’t finalized until Dec. 4, and it needs to match the same timeline as the federal rule, that would give Oregon employers exactly a month from that date to ensure their workers are vaccinated or participating in weekly testing.

As for whether the state can meet the potential increased demand for vaccines and tests, Corvin said that isn’t in Oregon OSHA’s wheelhouse.

“So we’re not going to determine necessarily the capacity for testing; that’s probably going to come under another context,” Corvin said. “But presumably, that capacity would be there.”

Meanwhile, the Oregon Health Authority said in an email that its staff can’t comment on how a vaccine-or-test rule for companies would impact state resources until Oregon OSHA finalizes its plan.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a news host and reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.