Oregon Department of Agriculture faces a potential staffing shortage that could impact the scope of services the department provides to the state's farming community.
Over the past year, COVID-related disruptions, including budget cuts early in the pandemic, impacted the department's labor force. Seasonal and part-time positions have been the hardest to fill.
Now, with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's vaccine mandate for state government employees set to go into effect Oct. 18, ODA leaders are bracing for a potential further loss of workers.
"There are workforce shortages in the ag sector and for us as a state agency that are impacting those services that we're providing," Alexis Taylor, director of ODA, told state agriculture department leaders at a recent National Association of State Departments of Agriculture event.
Taylor said employees' response to the vaccine mandate adds "another layer on the work staff shortage that we're trying to work through in the state of Oregon." Taylor said some staff members for various reasons don't want to get vaccinated, which is "becoming a challenge in some of our programs."
How many staff might ODA lose? The agency declined to make predictions, instead telling the Capital Press that "at this time, it is unclear what the vaccine mandate will do to ODA staffing levels."
Andrea Cantu-Schomus, spokeswoman for ODA, said the agency is committed to Oregon's requirement that state employees be fully vaccinated or have started the vaccination process by Oct. 18 except for employees with medical or religious exemptions.
ODA leadership, staff and stakeholders have been in conversations "preparing for possible drops in staffing and potential impact to services," said Cantu-Schomus. Whatever happens, she said, "ODA will do its very best to maintain services that Oregonians expect."
ODA's leaders say they expect the department will be able to maintain its existing core staffing levels for essential services but are putting in place "contingency plans" in case the agency has areas with service gaps. Several staff have already volunteered to help cover gaps as needed.
This isn't the agency's first tussle with labor challenges during the pandemic.
When COVID-19 first hit, lottery funds were hit hard due to the closures of businesses, including bars and restaurants. This hurt ODA, which relies on lottery dollars to fund some programs.
In ODA's Noxious Weed Program, for example, which relies on lottery money, the agency reassigned staff to other programs to avoid layoffs.
As the pandemic progressed, the lottery situation improved and the Oregon Legislature passed a "robust state budget" to allow ODA to fill more staffing positions.
ODA declined to respond to a Capital Press request for numbers on how understaffed the department is or what percentage of advertised positions has gone unfilled.
However, Cantu-Schomus did say that "as ODA begins to recruit and fill key positions, the hiring pool has been strong for most jobs."
The hardest roles to fill are seasonal and part-time positions, especially in Eastern Oregon.