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As COVID-19 vaccine mandate deadline draws near, unions hurry to reach bargaining deals

Olympia resident and state worker William Baker, along with concerned citizens, gathers at the Capitol to protest Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate for state workers last month in Olympia.  (Drew Perine)
Olympia resident and state worker William Baker, along with concerned citizens, gathers at the Capitol to protest Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate for state workers last month in Olympia. (Drew Perine)

OLYMPIA – The deadline for many Washington employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine or face job termination is growing near, and so is the fight over how it will happen.

Unions for affected employees are in the process of bargaining over issues like time off for vaccines, exemptions and help from the state on vaccinating its employees.

But for the largest union representing state employees, the question about their ability to bargain the vaccine mandate in contract talks with the governor’s office may be decided in court.

The Washington State Federation of State Employees filed a lawsuit last week against Gov. Jay Inslee, asking a court to delay the implementation of the vaccine mandate. The union claimed the governor’s office had not bargained in good faith over the requirement that all state employees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18.

“Our union’s top priority is health and safety – for staff and the public we serve,” union president Mike Yestramski said last Friday. “That is why we need the state to make a good faith effort to bargain and to really think through how they’re going to implement this mandate in a safe, fair and consistent manner.”

Inslee announced earlier this month that most state employees, health care workers and educators are required to be vaccinated by Oct. 18 as a condition of employment. The mandate covers any worker in the governor’s executive cabinet and any contracted employee that works on state grounds.

It does not include employees that work for another elected official, such as the commissioner of public lands, but many of those agencies have followed Inslee’s lead in requiring their employees to show proof of vaccination.

Those who refuse risk losing their job.

When Inslee announced the mandate, many questions remained about how employees will be affected, and at the time, the governor’s office said much of that – including if employees get paid time off for vaccines, the process for verifying vaccine status and the process for disciplining employees – would be decided during bargaining.

According to the lawsuit, WFSE met with the state’s bargaining team earlier this month and raised several issues, including whether the state will assist with vaccination efforts and a more detailed process for exemptions and accommodations.

The union argued in its suit the state has refused to bargain. According to court documents, the union alleged the state refused all of its requests and failed to have counter-proposals.

The governor’s office disagrees with the union’s description of the bargaining efforts.

“Negotiations are continuing and they’re happening in good faith,” spokesman Mike Faulk wrote in an email. “These vaccine requirements are necessary to protect our communities and workers from the tragic circumstances of this pandemic.”

Since filing the lawsuit, WFSE spokesman Justin Lee said the state has sent counter-proposals to the union’s bargaining team, who are currently reviewing them.

If an agreement is not met, the union is asking a court to delay implementation of the mandate until negotiations are finished. Failing to do so would cause the employees represented by the union to be “irreparably harmed,” according to the suit.

Specifically, the uncertainty around exemptions and accommodations and the short timeline could cause employees to “either subordinate matters of conscience or have a serious adverse reaction to the vaccine because of a medical disability,” according to the lawsuit.

To be fully vaccinated, someone needs to be two weeks post-shot for Moderna or Pfizer, or one week post-shot of Johnson and Johnson.

If an employee decides to get Moderna, they must get their first dose by Sept. 6 because of the three -week period in between the two shots. If an employee decides to get Pfizer, they would need to get their first dose by Sept. 13. If an employee is getting Johnson and Johnson, they need to get their dose by Oct. 4.

“By those dates, which are the real ‘deadlines,’ the WFSE and the State would need to complete bargaining and inform employees of any changes, and only then could employees decide whether to get vaccinated and make arrangements to do so,” according to the lawsuit.

That timeline does not give an adequate amount of time for the union and the state to reach a deal, share the details and allow employees to get exemptions if they choose, the union argues.

Currently, the exemption process requires state employees to document their request with their human resources department, outlining their religious exemption or providing a note from a physician on why they cannot receive the vaccine.

The proclamation presents a “great many questions” about the exemptions and accommodations, according to the lawsuit.

Along with state employees, health care employees and educators have their own bargaining process and are still determining the process of how to deal with these exemptions under the current timeline.

Guidance from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction leaves it up to the school district’s human resource departments to review and approve religious accommodation requests. Employers should offer, but don’t have to require, employees the option to submit their request in writing, according to the state.

Jeremy Shay, president of the Spokane Education Association, said they are still waiting on the Spokane Public Schools district to get out information on how the exemption process will work.

Sandra Jarrard, director of communications for Spokane Public Schools, said the process was shared with staff Tuesday.

Unions representing nurses and other health care workers in the state subject to the governor’s vaccine mandate are currently bargaining the implementation of the mandate with employers.

Both the Washington State Nurses Association, which represents nurses at several hospitals statewide including Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, and SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, which represents nurses, aides and many health care workers at several hospitals statewide, are in the middle of that process right now.

State employee union representatives have said their lawsuit is not about the COVID-19 vaccine itself.

“I want to be very clear: This lawsuit is about the state’s failure to negotiate,” Lee wrote in an email. “We encourage our members to listen to public health guidance when it comes to this pandemic.”

State employees flooded to the Capitol Campus in Olympia on Saturday, pushing for an end to the vaccine mandate.

The event, organized by a group called Liberty, At All Hazards drew hundreds to the Capitol campus, according to the News Tribune.

According to the event description on the group’s website, workers came to Olympia to say they would not be complying with the mandate.

“If the Governor refuses to rescind his mandate, it will mean that multiple areas of the state will be severely reduced or shut down completely,” the event description read. “From prisons, to hospitals, to First Responders of all types, from firefighters, to police, to EMS personnel, to ferry workers, to teachers, coaches, and school volunteers, bus drivers, sanitation workers, and so on – the Governor is unnecessarily threatening the genuine safety and well-being of the citizens of Washington if he forces his mandate to stand.”

S-R reporters Jim Allen and Arielle Dreher contributed to this report.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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