Noelle Crombie / Oregonlive.com / (TNS)
When Governor Kate Brown imposed her COVID-19 vaccination mandate on state employees late last year, one agency stood out for its high rate of religious exemptions.
Nearly one in five Oregon Department of Corrections employees received the special dispensation for people with “sincere religious beliefs.”
State officials at the time offered no explanation for the extraordinary rate — the highest among state agencies with at least 100 employees.
Now, a possible explanation has emerged:
The second-in-command of the corrections department has told officials to encourage employees to apply for religious exemptions whether they are qualified or not, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the conversations but not authorized to speak on behalf of the agency. .
Heidi Steward, the agency’s deputy director, told officials in at least two meetings advising employees to “do religion” in the weeks leading up to the Oct. 18 deadline, the sources said.
The agency has long struggled with chronic staffing shortages that last year resulted in average monthly overtime costs of nearly $2 million.
The Corrections Department has approximately 4,400 workers to staff 14 prisons. According to the state, the agency granted all but two of the 822 requests for religious exemptions it received. He granted all 33 medical exemption requests.
Paul Buchanan, a Portland labor attorney, said the agency’s decision to grant nearly all religious exemption requests “a complete dereliction of duty.” He said employers can deny such requests where they weigh on the employer’s ability to maintain a safe environment, “which is clearly the case in a correctional facility.”
Steward, through an agency spokesperson, denied directing anyone to apply for a religious exemption “because she strongly believes this is a very personal decision based on religious belief. sincere of an individual”.
Director of Corrections Colette S. Peters, in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive, praised Steward’s leadership during the pandemic, saying Steward “has worked tirelessly” to ensure prisons are staffed. staffed and operated safely.
Steward, Peters said, “spent an inordinate amount of time educating employees and adults in custody about the importance of the vaccine and the governor’s guidelines.”
Steward has worked at the department for more than two decades and has worked his way up. She previously worked as superintendent of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, Wilsonville Women’s Prison. She earns an annual salary of $193,092.
According to the state, 99 executive branch employees lost their jobs due to non-compliance with the vaccination requirement. Among them, 17 worked in the correctional service.
Even though last month the governor rescinded his warrant for nearly 40,000 state employees, employees who were fired for failing to meet the requirement will not get their jobs back, according to the Department of Administrative Services.
Administrative Services spokesperson Andrea Chiapella said in an email that agencies must check references for all job applicants, including those who previously worked for the state, and that employees of the State who were fired for failing to comply with the governor’s order would have “left not in good standing and would not have a positive reference.
Buchanan called “very unfair” the state’s disparate treatment of employees who may not have been entirely honest when requesting religious exemptions versus those who did not request an exemption because that they were not eligible.
“Basically denying people a job because they honestly told their employer they wouldn’t get the vaccine? It seems unfair to me,” he said.
Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, also questioned why the state wouldn’t consider rehiring workers given the tight labor market.
“Not rehiring qualified people when there’s no more tenure – that’s a little worrying,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has swept through all 14 prisons in Oregon. Of the inmates, 5,315 were infected and 45 died. Another 1,622 corrections workers have also contracted the virus and three have died.