Organizations in Union County affected by mandates feel minimal impact

·7 min read

Oct. 21—UNION COUNTY — Union County residents can breathe a sigh of relief.

The state vaccination mandate that took effect earlier this week has not resulted in a mass exodus of employees that would hobble its public schools, health care services and state government agencies.

Under Executive Order 21-29 all public school staff for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, health care workers and employees of state government agencies must have been vaccinated for COVID-19 by Oct. 18 or have been granted an exception on religious or medical grounds. It appears that this order has resulted in only a limited number of employees leaving their positions in Union County.

Grande Ronde Hospital was directly affected by the deadline, with health care workers falling under the umbrella of the vaccination mandate.

The hospital employs just under 800 employees, making it one of the largest employers in Union County. Grande Ronde Hospital released a statement that noted more than 99% of its employees will be remaining with the hospital, either having received the COVID-19 vaccine or by filing a valid exemption. According to the press release, the "greatest majority" of the employees are fully vaccinated.

"While we support compliance with Oregon's COVID-19 vaccination requirement in order to continue our mission, we have also respected our employees' right to make the choice whether to vaccinate or not," the press release said. "We provided guidelines and policies to help our employees navigate that choice, including the process for exemptions, and have offered vaccine availability for those who chose to vaccinate."

The press release emphasized sadness over the loss of employees and thanked them for their service to the hospital. The 99% remainder of employees indicates that roughly 10 or fewer employees left the hospital because of the the vaccine mandate.

Emergency services face minimal backlash

At the La Grande Fire Department, Chief Emmitt Cornford expressed his concern of losing employees in the months leading up to the deadline.

According to Cornford, the department lost one full-time employee who chose to take a job in another state and one part-time employee who chose to resign.

The department's remaining EMTs and staff have either received the vaccination or filed an exemption. Cornford noted that employees will have to work extra hours to make up for the lost positions, but that the department will still operate at the highest standards.

"Our service to the community won't change," he said. "When you're short of staff it can make it a bit challenging, but the public shouldn't notice any difference in our service."

Med Transport, Inc., an advanced life support ambulance service based in North Powder, has not seen much of an immediate impact from the deadline. According to owner Chris Arvidson, the privately owned service has flexibility with the mandate since employees are sent on jobs nationwide.

"Our employees can pick and choose their assignments," he said. "If their assignment requires a vaccine, they can get a different assignment if need be. We're sending people throughout the country."

Arvidson noted that several employees on the medical services staff are currently in Louisiana, while a number of emergency service workers are aiding fire crews in California.

The company provides medical transport services, contracts nurses and paramedics and holds multiple state licenses in order to assist in medical staffing across the country.

Schools maintain majority of staff

Union County's public schools also do not appear to have been impacted in a major way by the mandate.

La Grande School District Superintendent George Mendoza said his district has lost four staff members, all non-teachers, because of the state's COVID-19 mandates. Mendoza said all the individuals resigned over the past six to eight weeks,

"They all had concerns about the mandates," Mendoza said.

The La Grande School District has more than 300 employees counting substitutes and coaches and Mendoza said many steps were taken to help all of its staff meet the state mandate. He said he is happy that a very high percentage of his staff will be remaining with the school district.

"I'm very thankful for the support we receive from our staff," Mendoza said.

The Cove School District will be retaining all of its teaching and non-teaching staff, according to superintendent Earl Pettit. Still, the school district did suffer some losses — two coaches and four substitute teachers. One of the coaches was with a fall sports team and the other was a spring sports coach.

Pettit said the loss of the four substitute teachers will reduce the school district's pool to six. The superintendent said this is below the number he believes the school district needs and that he will be trying to add to the district's list of substitute teachers.

The Elgin, Imbler, North Powder and Union school districts each also will be retaining all of its staff, the districts' superintendents reported. Imbler School District Superintendent Doug Hislop said he is delighted that he will be able to keep all of his staff, noting that it will help maintain stability for the students.

"We want to be as normal as we can be in an unnormal time," he said.

Union School District Superintendent Carter Wells also said he is delighted that his staff is still intact.

"It would have been horrific to have lost staff because of the mandate," Wells said. "Each and every staff member plays a vital role in our daily operations."

Wells said that his staff members, including non-teachers, build important relationships with students.

"When you lose a trusted adult it has a detrimental impact on students because of the relationships built with them," he said.

EOU plans ahead for in-house deadline

Employees of Eastern Oregon University are not impacted by the state mandate. However, Eastern has put a similar vaccination mandate in place, with a deadline of Oct. 22.

Tim Seydel, Eastern's vice president for university advancement, said EOU's employees were asked to submit their plans regarding the university's mandate by Sept. 15. This was done to give the university a better idea of what to expect and to make it easier for it to plan.

The process leading up to the Oct. 22 deadline has been smooth.

"We have a good response. We have not had any issues," Seydel said.

State agencies retain bulk of staff

The Oregon State Police, in addition to schools and health care providers, also fall under the umbrella of the state's Oct. 18 vaccination mandate. A press release from the OSP indicates 93% of its employees have met the requirements of the mandate and that the remaining 7% have applications for exceptions that are now being reviewed.

Of the OSP's employees, 78% have been fully vaccinated and 15% have been granted exceptions for religious or medical reasons. Ninety-six percent of the exceptions were granted for religious reasons.

A total of four OSP employees in the state are known to have resigned in response to the state's vaccination mandate. Each of the four cited the state's mandate when they resigned, according to the press release.

The Oregon Department of Transportation, another state agency affected by the mandate, also has a high employee mandate compliance rate. Katherine Benenati of ODOT said that as of the morning of Oct. 19, 95% of the agency's employees had met the requirements of the mandate. This meant that 4,406 of ODOT's 4,627 employees had met the standard, Benenati said.

Dick Mason is a reporter with The Observer primarily covering the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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