No, proof of previous COVID infection cannot be used to get around a vaccine mandate

Here are answers to your vaccine mandate questions about proof of vaccination, collecting unemployment and religious exemptions.

Posted: Sep 12, 2021 2:51 PM

PORTLAND, Ore — By Oct. 18, state employees, K-12 school staff and health care workers in Oregon and Washington must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or they risk losing their jobs.

The mandates, which do not allow employees to be tested weekly instead of getting vaccinated, are among the strictest in the country.

Yesterday, President Joe Biden announced additional vaccine mandates for federal government employees and private employers with more than 100 workers.

We continue to receive your vaccine mandate questions and our VERIFY team will continuing answering as many as possible.

The following questions are specific to the state requirements for Oregon and Washington employees, K-12 school staff and health care workers passed in August.

QUESTION #1
Can someone use their proof of previous coronavirus infection, and therefore proof of natural immunity, in lieu of getting vaccinated?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER
No, proof of previous COVID infection cannot be used instead of proof of vaccination.

WHAT WE FOUND
State employees, K-12 school staff and health care workers who have previously had coronavirus will still be required to provide proof of vaccination by October 18.

Guidelines from both Oregon and Washington state that natural immunity will not be accepted in lieu of proof of vaccination.

The Oregon Health Authority explained the decision in the requirement's FAQ document.

"The risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 outweighs the benefit of natural immunity. Given the variability in immune response, a lot of people who get infected naturally can get infected again, in sometimes as short as a few months," the OHA document reads.

The Washington State Department of Health also addressed the question on its website.

"The proclamation does not provide an exemption for individuals who have previously been infected with COVID-19. Experts do not yet know how long you are protected from getting sick again after recovering from COVID-19 and recommend getting vaccinated regardless of whether you already had COVID-19."

QUESTION #2
Can those who are fired for not getting vaccinated still collect unemployment benefits?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER
In general, those who are fired because they choose not to get vaccinated probably aren't eligible for unemployment benefits in Oregon or Washington. Those who qualify for a medical or religious exemption would be eligible for unemployment benefits if they remain unvaccinated.

WHAT WE FOUND
In a media briefing at the end of August, acting director of the Oregon Employment Department David Gerstenfeld said those who are fired for not being vaccinated generally won't be eligible for unemployment benefits.

"In broad strokes, requiring somebody to be vaccinated during the midst of a worldwide pandemic is a reasonable policy. So, if somebody doesn’t follow that policy and they don’t have a good reason, it very well could result in their not being eligible for benefits," said Gerstenfeld.

Gerstenfeld clarified that those who are granted a medical or religious exemption would still qualify for unemployment benefits if they remain unvaccinated.

Information posted online by the Washington State Employment Security Department said an individual's unemployment claim would likely be denied if they don't comply with the vaccine requirement and don't have a qualifying exemption.

Although, the department states some individuals may qualify in unique circumstances and it will "evaluate each case on its own merit."

QUESTION #3
How can employers determine if a religious belief is "sincerely held"?

THE SOURCES

  • Taylor Duty, attorney specializing in employment law

THE ANSWER
Those who are unable to get the COVID-19 vaccine for medical reasons or a sincerely held religious belief can request an exemption from their employer.

However, employers are not required to accept all exemption requests at face value and can ask for additional information, according to experts we spoke to.

Taylor Duty, an attorney at JJH Law who specializes in employment law, said employers have a right to ask follow-up questions if they are being asked to provide a reasonable accommodation, like allowing someone to remain unvaccinated.

In the case of religious exemptions, Duty said it's often determined on a case by case basis. But again, employers can ask for additional proof verifying the religious belief.

“They may ask for statements from either the individual's clergy, or a friend or family...that can sort of corroborate this religious exemption belief,” said Duty.

All COVID vaccine exemption requests will be reviewed by employers.

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