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Jackson County government workers face federal vaccine mandates

Jackson County government workers are facing federal COVID-19 vaccination mandates because the county has federal contracts for services like the Medford Airtanker Base. Andy Atkinson/Mail Tribune
Workers can get religious or medical exceptions

Jackson County government has notified its employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or apply for a religious or medical exception because of upcoming federal vaccination mandates.

The mandates are being challenged in court, but the county wants to give employees time to comply if the mandates do take effect. In the worst-case scenario, employees who don’t follow federal rules could be fired Jan. 5, according to a notice the county sent out to workers in November.

“We sent it out to employees to give them a head’s up about the options and make sure they have plenty of time to make a decision for themselves,” said Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan.

The Biden Administration adopted a series of mandates in an effort to boost the national vaccination rate.

One mandate applies to entities like Jackson County that have federal contracts that help cover the cost of employees and a range of services.

“The federal contracting rule applies to us and it pretty much touches every department in the county,” Jordan said.

The county government and taxpayers would take a massive financial hit if the county stopped accepting federal money in order to evade the contractor mandate.

“Our budget has millions and millions of federal dollars in it,” Jordan said.

He pointed to the example of the Medford Airtanker Base, which receives federal funding through a contract. Every year, air tankers and helicopters fly out from the base, delivering fire retardant and water to fight wildfires in the Rogue Valley and beyond.

“In that case, we would be sacrificing a service that’s delivered in our county at our airport. I don’t think anybody would say we don’t need the tanker base there,” Jordan said.

County departments from the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office to the Roads and Parks Department have federal contracts, said Senior Deputy County Administrator Harvey Bragg.

He said the federal vaccination mandates could affect a wide range of local governments and organizations that have contracts with the federal government. The rules affect contracts but not grants, Bragg said.

A different federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration vaccination mandate that applies to businesses and organizations employing 100 or more people is tied up in court, with its future uncertain. That rule would require people to get vaccinated by Jan. 4 or get an exception. Enforcement of that rule is on hold while the federal government awaits a court ruling.

But if it does take effect, Jackson County could face fines of $136,562 per violation, according to the county.

“We have to assume it takes effect until someone tells us officially that it doesn’t,” Bragg said.

He said Jackson County has approximately 890 full time-equivalent workers.

According to the notice Jackson County sent its workers, all employees except those in law enforcement are required to provide proof of vaccination by Jan. 4 and be fully vaccinated by Jan. 18, or get an exception. Fully vaccinated means at least 14 days have passed since a person received a one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot or the last of the two-shot Pfizer or Moderna series.

Workers who secure religious or medical exceptions will be required to wear a face mask indoors and when sharing a vehicle with another person for work purposes. Oregon already has an indoor mask mandate covering most workers.

Workers who get exceptions must submit to weekly COVID-19 testing. The county plans to provide free testing at designated county work sites, but employees will need to use their accrued time off for testing if they can’t fit testing around their work.

Workers who don’t get vaccinated or get exceptions will be fired Jan. 5. If they tell their supervisor they don’t plan to comply and give two weeks notice, they are eligible to be rehired for vacant positions in the future, the county notice said.

Jordan said he doesn’t know how many workers will comply with the federal vaccination rules or how many will leave their jobs.

“They have options here. They’re not required to get vaccinated. They can get an exception if they qualify for it,” he said.

The rules are slightly different for workers in law enforcement, including employees of the Sheriff’s Office and Community Justice Department parole and probation officers with adult clients.

They can either get vaccinated or wear a face mask and submit to weekly testing. Workers in law enforcement don’t have to apply for a religious or medical exception, according to the county notice.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.