Unvaccinated Washington state employees face their last day on the job
For more than 30 years, Charles LeBlanc has served the state of Washington. First as a state trooper, rising to the rank of captain. And, since 2017, as Washington’s fire marshal overseeing such things as the state’s fire training academy and enforcing fireworks regulations. But now LeBlanc is about to turn in his badge.
“The 18th [of October] will be my last day at work for the state. The 19th I will walk away without further employment, with no medical or dental coverage for my family,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc is among potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of Washington state employees poised to lose their jobs Monday because they didn’t comply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s requirement to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The state doesn’t expect to know the true “separation” number for several days.
Inslee issued his mandate — which also covers health care, long-term care and educational workers — in August amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations driven by the contagious delta variant. The so-called “fifth wave” was often described by hospitals and health care providers as the worst since the start of the pandemic. To date, Washington has confirmed more than 600,000 COVID-19 cases, logged nearly 38,000 hospitalizations and recorded over 8,000 deaths.
Inslee’s mandate covered more than 800,000 public and private sector workers, including about 61,000 general government employees. He gave them until October 18 to get fully vaccinated, or be fired.
There was an option for workers to seek medical or religious exemptions. As of October 7, about 6,069 state employees had sought exemptions and roughly 84 percent of those requests had been approved, according to state data.
But just because an employee received an exemption didn’t mean they could remain unvaccinated and keep their job. For that to happen, the worker had to get an approved accommodation from their agency. And the Inslee administration drew a hard line on accommodations in the name of health and safety.
For the most part, anyone whose job was public-facing, involved direct care or put them in close proximity to colleagues couldn’t be accommodated in their current position — even if they agreed to get tested regularly and take extra precautions like double-masking or wearing an N95 mask.
“Mask and test was the approach used prior to the mandate and resulted in outbreaks for staff and clients who were being served,” wrote Mike Faulk, an Inslee spokesperson in an email. “It did not work to meet the safety standards that are owed to our staff or clients.”
Instead, to get an accommodation, exempted workers generally had to be reassigned to a “back office” job or one that allowed them to telework.
According to the most recent data available from the state, only about 30 percent of requests for accommodation were being approved as of earlier this month. The final percentage, however, is likely to be higher as more than 1,300 requests for accommodation were still pending.
Still, it’s possible that many, if not the majority, of state employees who lose their jobs will be people who got exemptions, but not an accommodation — as opposed to workers who simply refused to get the vaccine and didn’t seek an exemption.
Generally, federal law requires employers to provide workers with a “reasonable accommodation” so long as it doesn’t create an “undue hardship” on the employer.
By law, employers have a greater obligation to accommodate workers with a medical exemption than those with a religious exemption. In the case of a religious exemption, the agency can say “no” if the accommodation would impose more than a minimal burden on operations.
In LeBlanc’s case, he got a letter from his doctor saying he has a “qualifying contraindication” to the COVID vaccine because of ongoing health issues and a history of adverse events, including once going into anaphylactic shock after getting an allergy shot.
With his doctor’s letter in hand, LeBlanc said he applied for and received a medical exemption, but was told by the Washington State Patrol, his employer, that he couldn’t be accommodated because of the public-facing nature of his job. Given the choice of getting vaccinated or getting fired, LeBlanc chose the latter.
“I think a mandate is very, very dangerous because …. you're taking people like me and basically asking me to play Russian Roulette with my life by taking a vaccination,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc added that he’s confident he has some natural immunity to COVID-19 after contracting the virus this summer.
Recently, LeBlanc became a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by dozens of state and local public sector workers that aims to overturn the governor’s mandate. A hearing in that lawsuit is scheduled for Monday in Thurston County Superior Court.
A separate lawsuit was filed in federal court where, on Friday, a judge in Seattle denied the plaintiffs’ motion to halt the implementation of the mandate.
Seattle attorney Nathan Arnold, who filed both lawsuits, said the state should have found a way to keep people like LeBlanc, who’s one of the State Patrol’s few Pacific Islander employees, from leaving state service.
“I would implore the governor to consider some commonsense accommodations,” Arnold said in an interview last week. “People like the fire marshal who have antibodies, they should be able to continue doing their job.”
In response, Faulk, the Inslee spokesperson, said, “The medical evidence shows vaccination provides a much more robust and longer antibody response than prior infection.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the State Patrol called LeBlanc “a good man and a good friend” and called his imminent departure “a loss.”
The spokesperson, Chris Loftis, said the agency reviewed each exemption case individually and followed federal equal opportunity and state workplace safety guides to find “accommodations whenever possible.”
“We do not wish to lose a single employee to this situation, but recognize loss will be inevitable given the medical and regulatory complexities of this public health-focused pandemic response,” Loftis said.
As of October 6, 90 percent of the State Patrol’s staff been verified as fully vaccinated. Of the remaining employees who had not confirmed their vaccine status, 91 were sworn officers and 61 were civil servant employees, according to the agency.
In response to the criticism that the state was being too restrictive in granting accommodations, Governor Inslee at a press conference on Thursday defended his get-vaccinated or get-out policy.
“It is a fair thing not to allow public servants to infect the public. We want to serve the public, not infect the public,” Inslee said.
In a 24-page guidance document sent to state agencies, Washington’s Office of Financial Management (OFM), which oversees state human resources, said workers could potentially be accommodated through the “implementation of multiple safety measures.”
The list of safety measures included requiring the employee to wear a surgical grade mask, staggering schedules or improving ventilation.
But a separate “Vaccine Accommodation Matrix” issued by OFM said safety measures “were not stopping the spread of COVID-19” and instructed agencies to take into consideration the type, frequency and risk of contact when deciding on accommodations.
For congregate settings, like prisons and state hospitals, where the risk of transmission is higher, the matrix offered no accommodation option for jobs that “require unavoidable or unpredictable interaction” unless the worker could be moved to a “back office” position.
At the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), which operates several 24/7 facilities including the state’s psychiatric hospitals, a spokesperson said staff with medical or religious exemptions “cannot be provided an accommodation to continue providing direct care.”
The Department of Corrections (DOC) took a similar position.
“Anybody that has that direct contact with our population … we’ve had to remove them from that direct contact with folks, said Assistant Secretary Mike Obenland, who oversees the state’s 12 prisons.
On Friday, DOC said it was working to accommodate all 91 employees who had received medical accommodations and was on track to offer accommodations to about 50 percent of the roughly 600 employees with religious exemptions.
Still, the agency was preparing to lose up to 500 of its 8,900 employees.
“That’s 500 families who are going to lose access to healthcare and pay and benefits and retirement, good union, living-wage jobs,” said Michelle Woodrow, the president and executive director of Teamsters 117, which represents front-line DOC workers.
Woodrow called Inslee’s mandate “rushed” and said her union was leaving open the option of pursuing union grievances or even litigation against the state.
Meanwhile, the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE), which represents about 38,000 general government employees , said it’s already pursuing union grievances on behalf of 42 non-front-line workers who received exemptions, but were not accommodated by their agencies.
The state’s de facto prohibition on unvaccinated state workers continuing to perform front-line jobs stands in contrast to what some school districts in Washington are allowing.
According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), unvaccinated school employees with exemptions are being accommodated through a menu of options that don’t necessarily preclude them from remaining in the classroom or having direct contact with students. That list includes a requirement that they double mask, submit to once or twice-a-week COVID testing and refrain from eating with other staff or students.
“There is no standard approach, OSPI will not be setting minimum requirements, nor will we collect data on the additional health and safety mitigations that you have put in place for your employees who are granted accommodations,” said state Superintendent Chris Reykdal in an email to school districts earlier this month.
Some local fire departments are also allowing unvaccinated firefighters who’ve received exemptions to continue working their regular shifts, but with additional masking and social distancing requirements.
Washington is one of 25 states, including Oregon and California, that have imposed some sort of COVID-19 vaccine mandate, according to LeadingAge, a national trade group that represents nonprofit long-term care facilities. But unlike California, Washington did not offer state workers a testing-in-lieu of vaccination option.
Last week, Inslee said he was “extremely encouraged” after the state worker vaccination rate topped 90 percent. While state agencies are making contingency plans in case of staffing shortages, Inslee said he wasn’t anticipating “massive disruptions” in state services as a result of the employees leaving because they aren’t vaccinated.
“And if people do make a choice to leave service, we will replace them. We will find other people who do decide to become vaccinated,” Inslee said.
Union representatives, though, are warning of worker shortages, especially in state institutions, and the potential for unsafe work conditions.
"We have staffing level issues in our institutions already, which is concerning," said Leanne Kunze, WFSE's executive director.
At the Washington State Patrol, Fire Marshal Charles LeBlanc isn’t the only employee who will be out of a job after Monday. So will Richard and Celina Thompson, a married couple with two small children who live in Vancouver.
Richard is a sergeant with almost 17 years on the job. Celina is a dispatcher approaching her 15th anniversary. They too are plaintiffs in the lawsuit to overturn the mandate.
In an interview in September, both said they felt the governor’s order amounted to government overreach and an infringement on their rights. They also said it was a personal, medical decision to get the vaccine and that they worried about possible side effects, as well as long-term effects.
“I just don’t want to put it in my body,” Celina Thompson said. “Ask me in five to 10 years when there’s been time to see what it does and what it doesn’t do and maybe I’ll reconsider.”
Citing “religious, moral and ethical beliefs” both received religious exemptions from the state patrol but were later told they couldn’t be accommodated.
In a follow up interview last week, the couple said they’ve come to terms with their decision to leave the State Patrol. They’ve decided to cash out their retirement and purchase a couple of small businesses.
“I do know we’ll be OK and I know we’ll succeed at anything that we do, but there’s some people that are getting fired that won’t be OK,” Celina Thompson said.
Richard, who has an appointment Monday to turn in his State Patrol vehicle and equipment, said the hardest part will be saying goodbye to the troopers he supervises, two of whom are also leaving the agency.
“It’s not fair or right, and neither is the mandate,” he said.
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