Exemption alone won't save state workers' jobs

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OLYMPIA — Thousands of state workers, health care workers, teachers and others are hoping to stay employed without getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

But many could soon find themselves on a job hunt.

Washington has one of the strictest vaccine mandates in the nation with no option to instead undertake frequent COVID testing.

And in some cases, medical and religious exemptions may not work to keep employees in their current position.

"It is possible that an agency will determine that an employee cannot be accommodated within their current position because doing so would pose a direct threat or because the accommodation poses an undue hardship or does not allow the employee to perform essential job functions, amongst other criteria," a fact sheet given to state agencies reads.

In short, some employees might find themselves working graveyard shifts where they don't interact with the public or other employees as often. Or they might be reassigned to work from home, or given a lower-wage job.

About 9 percent of state workers have applied for such exemptions, including 4,654 seeking a religious pass and another 1,124 applying for medical exemptions.

About 50 percent of religious exemption requests, or about 2,300, have been approved. Yet only 667 of those employees received a job-security accommodation as of last week.

And about 18 percent of medical exemptions, or about 200, have been approved, while 121 of those employees had received an accommodation.

Accommodation process

An employee may have an exemption approved, but it doesn't necessarily mean they will be accommodated, which is a separate process.

The decision made is based on a number of factors, per guidance from the Office of Financial Management, the agency responsible for the state's human resources.

Employers may determine an accommodation cannot be granted on the job site, although that does not mean the employee will be let go.

Accommodation decisions must take into account if or how frequently the employee interacts with others, the risk and vaccination status of other people and what protective measures can be used.

The OFM guidance encourages safety measures as an accommodation, such as surgical grade masks, working staggered shifts or from home and even office upgrades such as better ventilation.

State trooper K.C. Scott, 54, received a religious exemption but was told he would be reassigned.

"I haven't heard of any person within state employment right now that their exemption was not approved," said Scott, who is currently moving back to Spokane. "What they said was they couldn't accommodate you."

A letter Scott received from WSP's human resources staff outlines the process for reassignment.

Scott can send his resume to his department, which will try to match him with an already vacant, funded position.

The department also will make "a good faith effort" to find a similar paying job.

Scott said he has been following safety precautions since the beginning of the pandemic and does not come into contact with many people during his day-to-day duties.

"We've been doing this," he said. "And they're still allowing us to do the job now."

Guidance from OFM, however, said wearing masks, social distancing and testing were not adequate at stopping the spread of COVID-19. More would be needed for unvaccinated people.

Washington State Patrol spokesperson Chris Loftis said the department is getting "a great many requests," but couldn't comment on the specifics.

The state patrol received 377 requests for religious exemptions. It approved 341 of them but made an accommodation for just one.

There have been 46 medical exemption requests, with 11 being approved. Four received an accommodation.

OFM's guidance also reminds employees that accommodations are temporary, and employers should reevaluate them every 60 days.

If an employee is not approved for an accommodation, they must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18, or lose their job.

School districts and health care organizations have their own process for accommodating employees.

Adolfo Capestany, spokesperson for the Department of Social and Health Services, said how each employee is accommodated depends on the individual and their role.

Nick Demerice, spokesperson for the Employment Security Department, said his agency is still working out the accommodation process with the human resources department and unions. The agency has received close to 300 exemption requests.

Unemployment benefits, retirement are two options

Instead of getting the vaccine, Scott said he plans to retire after Oct. 18. Having worked in the parks system and as a state trooper in his career, he will still be receiving most of his benefits.

Scott said he feels fortunate he is able to do so, but there are many others who will not have that choice.

Whether employees can receive unemployment benefits after leaving or getting fired depends on the situation, Demerice said.

Someone who is granted an exemption but can't be accommodated in their current position might qualify for benefits, Demerice said.

Employees at private businesses affected by the mandate may have a difficult time receiving unemployment benefits.

Assuming an employer gives ample opportunity and notice of the vaccine requirement, "it would be difficult in those situations based on this and solely this to receive benefits," he said. "But it's not impossible."

State officials not worried about staffing shortages

Nearly 600 state workers, including many state troopers, Department of Corrections workers and firefighters, signed onto a lawsuit against Gov. Jay Inslee in Walla Walla County Superior Court, claiming the governor exceeded his authority in issuing the mandate.

In a hearing on Monday, Judge M. Scott Wolfram granted a request from the state to change the case venue to Thurston County.

Inslee told reporters Thursday he did not think there would be staffing shortages statewide, saying state workers want to do what's best for the public and will end up getting the shot.

He said the state has contingency plans in place for those who do decide to leave. The state normally has about a 10 percent turnover rate every year, Inslee said.

"This is not an untoward situation," he said.

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