Dear Governor Brown,
I represent Timber Unity Association, an Oregon 501c6 non-profit membership association with a mission to protect and defend the livelihoods of Oregon workers whose incomes are dependent on the natural resource economy. Today, on this Labor Day, our association is speaking out on behalf of the public employees and healthcare workers for whom you have issued a requirement of mandatory Covid-19 vaccination as a condition of workplace employment. Given that public employment and healthcare employment tend to be the predominant work opportunities in rural communities outside of natural resource jobs, many of the industry workforce we represent are spouses or parents of nurses and other healthcare workers; law enforcement and corrections officers; volunteer and regular firefighters; and other state workers.
At the beginning of this pandemic, we as a board encouraged our members to mask up to protect businesses and workers. When groups have asked us to participate in rallies in opposition to your executive orders, we’ve refrained from encouraging people to aggregate out of an abundance of caution for the health and safety of our members. As it relates to vaccines, we have discouraged misinformation from being distributed on our sites. Like the rest of Oregon, our board runs the spectrum of those who have been fully vaccinated, those who’ve acquired natural convalescent immunity, and those who have philosophical issues with vaccinations. We’ve encouraged members to make their medical choices based on medical advice, not social media memes.
During the pandemic, our organizational time has been to be a resource to the state during other natural disasters like wildfires and the winter ice storms. We’ve worked to be a resource in helping interpret executive orders so our members can comply with the orders – even when we haven’t agreed with the orders themselves. But with the most recent vaccine mandates, we feel the need to speak up and tell you about the impact that will happen in rural communities if they go into effect as written.
We are aware of the pressure the recent Covid surge is having across the state. It is pushing healthcare and emergency management to the edge of its capacity. And with new mutations on the horizon and winter months coming, we can anticipate that we’re not out of the woods and another surge is on the horizon. Moreover, until we see some rain, we can fully expect to be in fire season when your vaccine mandates become operable. Therefore, it’s critical that we work to find a compromise that doesn’t put key public workers and healthcare workers in the position of walking away from their employment over philosophical reasons. Right now, these essential frontline workers have been going full tilt since the beginning of the pandemic. Cutting them loose over a vaccine debate doesn’t just cost the state in terms of exacerbating a skilled workforce crisis, it costs taxpayers money to hire new workforce, particularly the high cost of hiring out-of-state traveling healthcare as replacements.
Governor Brown, we hope you’re aware that in recent weeks, studies have shown that immunity acquired from contracting Covid-19 can be as protective as a vaccine, particularly against the Delta variant. We know from the states tracking reinfection that the Centers for Disease Control pegs reinfection at 1% or less. That makes the risk of reinfection comparable to the risk of a breakthrough infection for a vaccinated individual. We are also not seeing reports of reinfected individuals being hospitalized or dying from a second infection.
We are asking that you give direction to the Oregon Health Authority to include in these vaccine mandates that public workers and healthcare employees who can demonstrate through laboratory testing that they have positive antibodies for Covid-19 that they be allowed to continue to resume the important work they provide to the communities in which they live. By broadening your mandate, you’ll avert a labor workforce crisis in critical public services and safety at a time when we can’t afford to lose workers. If even a handful of firefighters, nurses, or law enforcement leave their jobs or take early retirement, in the smaller communities in Oregon, it leaves us dangerously short of qualified and/or licensed personnel to do key jobs. Moreover, because these workers have been on the frontlines, many have already contracted Covid-19 at some point during the pandemic. If they still show positive antibodies, we should continue to allow them to work in these roles as they have since the beginning of the pandemic.
The other issue we believe needs to be addressed is the Employment Division’s stance that refusing a vaccine as part of workforce requirements is insubordination, therefore, not a benefits-eligible termination of employment. There are reasons besides religious and medical that people would be hesitant to take a vaccine, especially where only one FDA-approved option exists, and the others are still in Emergency Use Authorization. If, but for refusing this vaccine, any other reduction-in-force of these employees would have rendered them eligible for unemployment benefits, then the Employment Division should maintain a policy of extending benefits in this circumstance. Previously, the Legislature has extended unemployment insurance beyond the scope of eligibility or duration – we believe strongly this should be one of those occurrences where benefits are extended to those that are terminated for failure to meet a workplace requirement of vaccination.
Conversely, if unemployment benefits are not extended, then we would support that vaccine injuries which public employees and healthcare workers experience as a result of the mandate are covered by the state for long-term disability. This would be in the same manner the United States’ Department of Defense and the Veterans’ Affairs Administration covers long-term disability for members of the military when vaccine injuries occurred because the vaccine is a requirement as a condition of military employment.
Governor Brown, you have it within your authority to provide maximum flexibility on these mandates, while still managing the important task of public safety. You also can send a strong message to private employers by implementing flexible policy that recognizes a broader way to reach heard immunity. Less mandates and more dialogue are critical to managing public safety. It’s time to change course to achieve a balanced need to manage through the remainder of the pandemic as it moves to an endemic disease, with the need to maintain critical public sector and healthcare workforce, especially in resource-starved areas of our state. We stand ready to help with more workable solutions.
Mike Pihl, President
Timber Unity Association
|Post Date: 2021-09-06 17:16:22||Last Update: 2021-09-06 20:10:44|