Oregon has granted religious exemptions from Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate to at least 11% of state executive branch workers, nearly double the rate of faith-based exemptions approved for state workers in Washington.

Washington drew national headlines Monday when it fired Washington State University football coach Nick Rolovich and several assistant coaches because they refused to get vaccinated. Rolovich unsuccessfully sought to keep his job by requesting a religious exemption. Data released by Washington on Tuesday shows that state has signed off on vaccine religious exemptions for a far smaller percentage of the state workforce than Oregon.

Monday was the deadline for state employees in Washington, and many in Oregon, to provide proof of vaccination, obtain a religious or medical exemption or prepare to be fired. In Oregon, public employee unions worked out deals with the state to extend the time some employees have to complete that process.

Data provided by Gov. Jay Inslee’s office shows 6.8% of Washington employees had received religious exemptions as of Tuesday.

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The most recent information provided by Oregon’s administrative agency is from Monday, when 11%, or 4,281 state workers, had been granted religious exemptions. Since then, the state approved an additional 463 vaccine exemptions but it has not yet shared the breakdown of how many are based on religious beliefs versus medical reasons.

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In Washington, many of the state employees who received religious exemptions will nonetheless lose their jobs because their employer found workplace accommodations not to be feasible. In general, Washington employees whose jobs involve directly working with the public or colleagues can only keep their jobs if they could be reassigned to telework, the Northwest News Network reported.

Oregon, however, will ensure that all workers who get an exemption can keep their jobs.

Washington has approved both religious exemptions and job accommodations for just 2.4% of state workers, a total of 1,514 employees. That number will almost certainly rise slightly, since 610 employees with approved religious exemptions still had pending accommodation requests as of Tuesday.

Oregon allowed individual agencies, rather than its centralized human resources department, to decide which employees had a “sincerely held religious belief” against vaccination necessary to qualify for an exemption.

Among agencies with at least 100 employees, the rates of religious exemptions granted ranged from 19% at the Oregon Department of Corrections and 14% for Oregon State Police to 2% at the Higher Education Coordinating Commission and none at the Oregon Public Utility Commission.

Oregon will not dismiss employees who received religious exemptions but have jobs that involve significant in-person work.

Sherry Kudna, legislative coordinator for the Department of Administrative Services, wrote in an email that state agencies’ human resources departments are going through accommodation processes with individual employees and coming up with “safety measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.” Most jobs held by corrections and state police officials involve regular contact with inmates, members of the public or co-workers. Ahead of a vaccine mandate, public employers and others relied on masking, social distancing and remote work when possible to slow spread of COVID-19.

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(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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