Oregon Corrections Union Tries to Stop Vaccine Mandate

In federal filing, the union says state has overreached constitutional powers, inmates file in support of state to protect against COVID-19

Months after Gov. Kate Brown announced a vaccine mandate for all state workers, the Association of Oregon Corrections Employees union has filed a lawsuit, attempting to strike down the mandate. Some Oregon adults in custody, however, filed a legal reply, joining the defendants in the lawsuit, citing the health risk it would have on them if the vaccine mandate were thrown out. 

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon in Eugene Oct. 9, the lawsuit argues that Brown and other agencies violated the employees’ constitutional and labor rights by requiring employees to be vaccinated. 

The union’s members filed the federal lawsuit over Brown’s Aug. 10 vaccine mandate for state workers. The mandate requires state employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 18 or provide reasons for exemption based on disability, medical or strongly held religious belief. 

According to the filing, members tried to bargain with correctional administrative officials starting Aug. 11. But officials sent an email to all Department of Corrections (ODOC) employees that they would be terminated if they remained unvaccinated. 

ODOC spokesperson Jennifer Black says 73 percent of ODOC employees meet the vaccine mandate. According to a chart sent to Eugene Weekly, it shows out of the 4,500 employees working, 2,513 are vaccinated (about 55 percent), 759 (about 17 percent) received a religious exemption and 27 were medically exempt. However, 76 percent of the inmates are fully vaccinated. 

Graph from ODOC

The union argues that the vaccine mandate violates their right to contracts, employees’ 14th amendment rights (which makes it illegal for any state or federal law to infringe on an individual’s privileges or rights) and the National Labor Relations Act. The union is asking the court to block the vaccine mandate and award legal fees and relief to the plaintiffs. 

The union’s lawsuit argues that employees will be “wrongfully terminated for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine or if they choose to compromise their personal belief systems in order to maintain their employment.” 

The union posted on its website a Sept. 28 ODOC counterproposal to their request on the vaccine mandate, which the union called “laughable.” ODOC said it would make accommodations for those who would be exempt under Brown’s executive order. The agency would offer them remote work or telework, transfer of positions, shift changes or physical modifications to the employee’s work area. 

If an employee has begun the vaccination process late, ODOC offered, they’ll be given until Nov. 30 to finish the process. During that grace period, the employee would work remotely. Or if remote work isn’t possible, they’ll be allowed to use leave with or without pay, depending on the employer. 

If the employee’s request to be exempt from the vaccine failed, they would have seven days to start the vaccination process. 

Correctional officers joining the lawsuit with the union include seven employees whose years of work experience with the ODOC range from one year to 26 years. The union represents employees at the Oregon State Penitentiary, South Fork Forest Camp and the Oregon Correctional Institution. 

However, some adults in custody filed a reply to the lawsuit, seeking to join the defendants on the lawsuit since they argue they’d be negatively affected by allowing correctional officers to be unvaccinated. The adults in custody are forced to interact with the officers throughout the facility, as well as in their living space, the filing says. 

The filing adds that unvaccinated employees will increase the risk that incarcerated people will contract COVID-19, resulting in severe and long-lasting physical injuries — such as death. According to the adult in custody filing, there have been almost 50 deaths throughout the ODOC since the start of the pandemic. 

“And in all events, the fact that 44 adults in custody have died from exposure to COVID-19 in ODOC’s institutions only proves the significant, direct, and immediate interest that those who have not suffered such tragic consequences have in the issues presented in these proceedings,” the filing states. 

As of Oct. 14, a California correctional officers union has succeeded in temporarily blocking the vaccine mandate. According to The Sacramento Bee, a state court judge blocked California’s vaccine mandate on Oct. 14, the deadline set by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

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