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Union representing 45,000 state employees upset with Inslee over vaccine mandates

Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
The 45,000-member Washington Federation of State Employees is criticizing Gov. Jay Inslee for his mandate that all state workers must be fully vaccinated against COVID by Oct. 18.

A major state employees union is criticizing Gov. Jay Inslee’s implementation of a broad COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Inslee last week ordered state employees and health care workers to get vaccinated by Oct. 18 or face termination. On Wednesday, he expanded the requirement to include K-12 and higher education employees.

The Seattle Times reports Inslee said the state would bargain in good faith over the requirements with unions representing affected state employees.

But the 45,000-member Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) says the Inslee administration is breaking that commitment — and failing to provide needed details about how the mandate will affect the state workforce.

“To put it very bluntly, I feel like we launched a plane into the air before we figured out whether there’s a pilot on board,” said Mike Yestramski, WFSE’s president. He said state negotiators dismissed all of the union’s proposals at a bargaining session this week and failed to shed any light on key questions about the rollout.

Yestramski declined to list the union’s specific requests, but he said concerns include protections for people in need of legitimate religious and medical exemptions and backup plans for staffing if large numbers of employees quit or get fired.

Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee disputed the union’s account.

“To say that we do not have a plan is a mischaracterization of the situation. Agencies are working as quickly as possible to verify fully vaccinated employees. Meanwhile, we are putting in place guidance and processes for agencies to work with employees who plan to seek medical and religious accommodation requests,” Lee said in an emailed statement.

State Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, who chairs the Senate Labor, Commerce and Tribal Affairs Committee, said she thinks workers fired for refusing the vaccine should be eligible for benefits. “I think the unions will be asking the same,” she said.

More people are hospitalized with COVID-19 this week — more than 1,200 — than at any time during the pandemic as the highly contagious delta variant infects mostly unvaccinated people. The previous highest number was about 1,100 in December.

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