OLYMPIA – Thousands of state employees, including hundreds of state troopers and prison guards, are seeking exemptions from Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccination mandate.
The deadline for full vaccination is Oct. 18, and so far about 8 percent of state workers have put in exemption requests. The issue is divisive, as state employee unions bargain its effects and some workers hope to resolve the issue by filing a lawsuit claiming the governor exceeded his authority and violated their constitutional rights when he ordered most employees to get the shot.
Of 2,300 Washington State Patrol employees, 373 have submitted requests for religious exemptions. Of those, 215 have already been approved for commissioned officers, and 69 have been approved for civil servants, said spokesperson Chris Loftis.
All 22 requested medical exemptions have been approved, he said.
It’s one of the highest percentages of exemptions requested in state agencies subject to the mandate, according to initial exemption data released by the state on Tuesday.
At the Department of Corrections, 528 exemptions have been requested by employees.
The lawsuit alleges Inslee exceeded the scope of his authority by issuing a mandate that should have been left up to the Legislature and local health districts. Additionally, it says the governor violated workers’ constitutional rights of life, liberty or property; privacy; religious freedom; and speech and assembly.
The mandate allows for religious and medical exemptions, but some workers worry they still will lose their jobs if they file for an exemption, according to the lawsuit.
Friday’s lawsuit is the second from state workers in the past month over the requirement. The Washington Federation of State Employees, the largest union representing state workers, filed a suit asking the court to extend the Oct. 18 deadline.
Within 24 hours of filing that initial lawsuit, Inslee’s office and union negotiators were back at the bargaining table. They reached a deal last week giving workers an extra personal day for 2022. The agreement allows those who wish to retire before receiving a vaccine to do so. If those wishing to get an exemption are awaiting a decision by Oct. 18, they will not lose pay until the decision is final. If they do not get the exemption, they have 45 days to become fully vaccinated.
That agreement covers the 47,000 state workers that the WSFE represents. Other unions, such as those representing Department of Corrections officers, are still in the bargaining process.
Inslee told reporters last week he thought the agreement reached with WFSE was a good template to use for other unions bargaining the vaccination requirement.
Thousands put in exemption requests
State agencies and unions representing their employees encouraged workers to file exemptions by Monday to give human resources departments enough time to issue decisions and accommodations.
The mandate only covers employees in agencies run by members of the governor’s executive cabinet and does not apply to those in departments run by separately elected officials.
Of the state employees covered by the mandate, 3,891 requested religious exemptions and 892 medical exemptions.
Of the religious exemptions, 737 have been approved. Of the medical exemptions, 49 have been approved.
With the vaccination deadline looming, fewer than 50 percent of state employees in these agencies have been verified as fully vaccinated as of Sept. 6. Departments with the lowest rates of verified vaccinations include the Department of Children, Youth and Families, the Department of Corrections, the Employment Security Department, the state Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Transportation and the Washington State Patrol.
For school employees, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction will be keeping track of school districts’ vaccination and exemption rates. Spokesperson Katy Payne wrote in an email that OSPI would not be sending out that survey to districts until after the Oct. 18 deadline. Hospitals will track vaccination of their employees. Compliance numbers were not available Tuesday.
Taya Briley, executive vice president at Washington State Hospital Association, said many hospitals are working to meet the employee vaccination deadline.
“There are still a number of unvaccinated staff in rural areas in particular,” Briley said.
Hospitals are reviewing exemption requests on a case-by-case basis, Briley said. Hospitals could not just “rubber stamp” those requests once received.
“The medical requests are easier to review and verify,” Briley said.
The religious belief exemptions are trickier, and Briley said templates of exemption requests have been circulating online.
“What’s key to validating those is hospitals will engage in an interactive process with the person who has that belief and to discuss accommodations that could be made,” Briley said.
For state agencies, the governor’s office has an exemption template online. It requires employees to say whether they have “a sincerely held religious belief or religious conviction” that prevents them from getting the COVID-19 vaccine. It also asks whether the employee has received vaccines in the past.
It recommends human resource departments gather follow-up information, including how long the employee has had the religious beliefs and whether those beliefs include objections to all vaccines.
Deadlines for most first doses have passed
As exemptions are filed and deals are struck, deadlines to get first doses have passed.
Monday was the last day to get the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in order to be considered fully vaccinated by the Oct. 18 deadline. The deadline to get the first dose of Moderna passed on Sept. 6.
Those still unvaccinated could get the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine as late as Oct. 4. The state has about 53,000 Johnson & Johnson doses available and ordered more last weekend.
S-R reporters Arielle Dreher and Emma Epperly contributed to this report.