Multnomah County employees face layoffs if they don’t obey Chair Deborah Kafoury’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.
Employees at the Multnomah County Courthouse? Not so much.
On Aug. 24—nearly two weeks after Gov. Kate Brown began issuing vaccination mandates that now cover all state agency employees, and K-12 school employees, including teachers and healthcare workers—Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters issued a decidedly softer communication to the 2,000 employees of the Oregon Judicial Department, who staff courts across the state.
Walters noted that the virus is impacting the courts.
“Throughout the state, court staff, judges, attorneys, and jurors have tested positive, threatening their health and disrupting the critical work that we do for Oregonians,” she wrote.
But rather than mandating a vaccine, as Brown and Kafoury did, Walters presented a “request” to any Judicial Department employee who remains unvaccinated.
“I am asking that you get your first vaccination shot as soon as possible,” Walters wrote. “I know that some of you may not agree with this request, or may have concerns about the health risks of getting a vaccine shot.”
That stance struck some OJD employees, who declined to speak for attribution, as a half measure, particularly as Walters told presiding judges said she didn’t want any of them issuing local mandates.
OJD spokesman Todd Sprague says that Walters chose a path that she thought would be most effective at increasing the vaccination rate of court staff.
“Throughout the pandemic, Chief Justice Walters has reviewed the governor’s executive orders and issued Chief Justice Orders intended to achieve the same or similar results in the courts with the objective of keeping courts both open and safe,” Todd says in an email.
Sprague notes that OJD found that 82.5 percent of employees with whom the agency communicated reported they had been vaccinated. He says that number—higher than President Joe Biden’s goal of 70 percent—figured into Walters’ thinking.
(It’s worth noting, however, that a Portland Association of Teachers’ survey, for instance found a reported rate even higher than that—but PAT still welcomed a mandate, in part because surveys only capture the responses of those who respond, not all employees.)
“The Chief Justice decided that the best way to increase that percentage as quickly as possible would be to make a clear request for vaccination and to provide judges and employees with information and resources that demonstrate the safety of the vaccines and the pressing need for all (except those who would qualify for exemption) to get their first shots as soon as possible,” Sprague adds.
Walters is reserving the right to implement a mandate later. “The Chief is closely monitoring the situation and will take other steps as and when necessary to increase the percentage of judges and staff who are fully vaccinated, and to keep people safe,” Sprague says.
He confirms that local mandates are off the table. “For now, we’re taking a statewide approach,” Sprague says. “Some of the great news is that the 4th Judicial District (Multnomah) is at about 89% for vaccination.”