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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Federal judge denies request by 25 Spokane firefighters to get jobs back after refusing COVID-19 vaccine

The Thomas S. Foley United States Courthouse in Spokane.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A Spokane federal judge on Thursday denied the request of more than two dozen city firefighters who were seeking an order restoring them to their jobs.

“The public interest the city has put forth to prevent death certainly outweighs the public interest in what is alleged to be civil rights violations,” said U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice.

The firefighters filed a lawsuit Oct. 14, four days before a deadline imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee via proclamation for health care workers to receive COVID-19 vaccination in order to keep their jobs. The firefighters argue the city did not accommodate their religious and medical exemptions to receiving their shots, but Chad Mitchell, an attorney for the city of Spokane, told Rice during the telephonic hearing that wasn’t true.

“We did what was right for the city of Spokane,” said Mitchell, calling the choice to require vaccination a “right, but difficult decision.”

In sworn statements, the city’s firefighting and human resources officials told the court that of the 25 firefighters seeking exemption, three have since sought full vaccination and three had taken paid leave through the end of the November to get their shots. Thirteen had selected to be laid off, which means they maintain their pay status and seniority for two years should they decide to come back to work. Two firefighters resigned, one took a 90-day leave of absence without pay and three more retired from the department.

Nathan Arnold, the attorney representing the firefighters, accused the city of exaggerating the $3.1 million in COVID-19 costs incurred by the department since March 2020, including overtime and paying worker’s compensation claims as firefighters had to quarantine following exposure. He also said that other departments across the state had made more accommodations for their unvaccinated firefighters than Spokane.

“They are still in the community,” Arnold said of his clients, “they are merely seeking employment elsewhere.”

Mitchell noted that, in the weeks since the lawsuit was filed, the city had negotiated with the local firefighters union to allow the unvaccinated workers to serve as dispatchers for the department. That development required bargaining, he said.

“That’s fantastic,” Arnold said. “That was not the case when we filed the lawsuit.”

Rice indicated he’d issue a written ruling following the hearing Thursday. His ruling from the bench echoes one he entered in late October denying a similar request from state employees, including Spokane firefighters and Washington State Patrol troopers against Inslee’s mandate.

The decision not to grant the temporary order sought by the firefighters does not end the case. No future hearing date has been set, but the parties have been given a Dec. 8 deadline to file additional briefings for Rice to consider.