Salem’s biggest employers retained most staff after statewide Covid vaccine mandate took effect

Nurses Judy Webb, front, and Judy Barela work at a mobile vaccine clinic run by Salem Health at Chemeketa Community College on Sept. 27, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Salem employers reported no school bus routes went undriven and no medical appointments were canceled as a statewide Covid vaccination mandate for many workers took effect Tuesday.

Employers in Salem that fall under Oregon’s Covid vaccine mandate will retain nearly their entire workforce as most employees got vaccinated. The region’s largest covered employers also granted hundreds of exceptions ahead of the Monday deadline.

The August mandate set by Gov. Kate Brown covered school employees, health care workers and many state employees, and allowed for religious or medical exceptions.

Salem’s fire departments, hospital, school district and mental hospital said impacts to services will be minimal as they have placed few or no employees on leave.

Salem Health, the largest private employer covered by the mandate, placed 44 of its 5,200 employees on unpaid leave because they had not been vaccinated or approved for an exception, hospital spokesperson Lisa Wood said Monday.

As of Monday, 89% of Salem Health employees had been vaccinated against Covid, Wood said. Salem Health had 490 requests for exceptions to the vaccine mandate and granted “the vast majority,” she said.

Unvaccinated employees who get an exception will have to undergo regular Covid testing, additional screening measures and education on the benefits of the vaccine.

“No single department has been disproportionately impacted by those now on unpaid leave,” Wood said.

If an employee at Salem Health is still unvaccinated and doesn’t have an approved medical or religious exception by Jan. 31, 2022, their unpaid leave may end and they may be fired.

Wood said Salem Health doesn’t expect any disruption in patient care due to the mandate’s deadline. “We have contingency plans in place to meet staffing needs and continue serving the community,” she said.

Patients can ask staff if they are fully vaccinated and can choose to be treated only by staff who disclose that they are, Wood said. If not, the hospital will assign a fully vaccinated staff member to avoid the patient delaying or refusing necessary care.

Bus routes and classroom teaching continued as usual Tuesday, Salem-Keizer School District spokesperson Emily Hicks said.

The district required vaccination for all of its 5,546 employees, including administrators and other workers not based at a school. About 91%, or 4,968 employees, chose to be vaccinated. The district granted 454 religious and 30 medical exceptions, she said.

As of Tuesday, the district placed 90 employees on leave because they had not gotten vaccinated or received an approved exception. That total includes eight teachers, two bus drivers and six custodial workers, Hicks said. She said some of those on leave are in the middle of being vaccinated and will be able to return to work once they complete their vaccination series.

Local fire departments said they didn’t expect to lay employees off as a result of the mandate.

Of the Salem Fire Department’s 164 active firefighters, 24 were granted exceptions, said city spokesperson Courtney Knox Busch. The remainder were vaccinated, and none were placed on leave.

Kyle McMann, chief of Marion County Fire District #1, said around 75% of the district’s employees are vaccinated against Covid, while the rest had exceptions approved.

“I do not see any impacts at this moment, but we are evaluating anybody that did not get vaccinated and then are asking for an exception,” McMann said. 

Of the 45 full-time and volunteer emergency medical service providers at Polk County Fire District #1, three were granted exceptions, said Chief Ben Stange.

Among those, 13 of the 15 licensed EMSTs were vaccinated while the other two were given exceptions.

Most state workers who weren’t fully vaccinated by Monday still had a chance until then to keep their jobs by getting the shot for the first time.

The state recently reached collective bargaining agreements with three unions that will allow employees they represent to show “intent and forward progress” to getting fully vaccinated by getting a first dose by Monday, said Liz Merah, a spokesperson for the governor’s office.

“This is a more productive path than someone not getting vaccinated at all and leaving state service,” Merah said. 

As of Monday afternoon, Merah said 91% of executive branch employees were in compliance with the vaccine requirement while another 3.5% awaited document verification from human resources.

She said the governor’s office directed state agencies to rereview their “Continuity of Operations Plans” – which state agencies are required to develop in planning for a potential emergency – to address any lost staff and prioritize critical services. With those plans in place, she said, “Oregonians should expect to receive the critical services they rely on.”

Prison workers represented by one of three unions will have a grace period until Nov. 30 to become fully vaccinated. That includes most employees of the Oregon Department of Corrections, said department spokesperson Jennifer Black.

As of Tuesday, 92.6% of corrections department employees were in compliance, with 4,144 having gotten vaccinated or gotten an exception. Another 332 had not, making up 7.4%.

Most employees at Salem prisons have gotten vaccinated or got an exception as of Monday. Eight of 160 total employees at the Oregon State Correctional Institution had not been vaccinated or granted an exception. At the Oregon State Penitentiary, 24 of 413 total employees aren’t complying. Of the 67 employees at Santiam Correctional Institution, just three haven’t been vaccinated or gotten an exemption.

Oregon State Hospital placed three mental health technicians on leave for not complying with the mandate, spokesperson Aria Seligmann said Tuesday. She said the hospital had granted 198 exceptions to vaccination among 2,306 permanent and temporary employees and expected the staff impact to be minimal.

“Absences will be covered with overtime, agency staff and the National Guard,” Seligmann wrote in an email.

Correction: This article was updated on Oct. 21 to correct an error in data from the Salem-Keizer School District. The total number of employees placed on leave pending compliance with the vaccine mandate was 90, not 80. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

Rachel Alexander contributed reporting.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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As Oct. 18 vaccination deadline looms, Salem employers report high vaccination rates