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Tense times on the Palouse: WSU’s mandate deadline, the exemption policy, Nick Rolovich’s options and the terms of his contract

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

A saga that began 75 surreal days ago has reached critical mass. Washington State coach Nick Rolovich must abide by a COVID-19 mandate in the next two weeks or face immediate termination.

The deadline for state employees to be fully vaccinated or receive an exemption for medical or religious reasons is Oct. 18, which makes today significant: Rolovich must get the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot by the end of the day in order to meet the vaccination deadline.

But there’s no reason to think the second-year coach has experienced a change of heart since July 21, the day he went public with the decision to not get vaccinated.

Since then, he has been asked repeatedly about his status and said only that he will follow the mandate.

If we assume Rolovich wants to continue coaching the Cougars beyond Oct. 18, that leaves one path: A religious or medical exemption.

But how are the exemptions defined in the state of Washington? How long could the process take to play out? And how will WSU determine if Rolovich meets the requirements?

Rolovich declined to comment Sunday night, which is his right. Athletic director Pat Chun has also declined to comment, which is his obligation. This is, after all, a human resources issue for WSU – the university simply isn’t allowed to discuss Rolovich’s situation.

But WSU can explain the process that will determine Rolovich’s future, because it’s the same process used for every exemption request.

“I can confirm that Monday is the deadline for receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and being fully vaccinated under the governor’s mandate,’’ said Phil Weiler, the WSU’s vice president for communications.

“It’s also the deadline for those seeking religious or medical exemptions. Unless you have been vaccinated or have an exemption by Oct. 18, you are not allowed to work for the university.”

Before he explained the exemption process, Weiler offered three facts of life on the Palouse:

– 98% of Washington State students are vaccinated against COVID.

– The university has twice as many students on campus in Pullman as it did last year … and one-fifth the case count.

“For all the attention the outliers are receiving,” Weiler said, “the mandate is working.”

– WSU has approximately 10,000 employees. As of late last week, 73 had applied for medical exemptions and 294 had sought religious exemptions.

Most likely, Rolovich is one of those 367.

What happens now?

The emergency proclamation issued by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Aug. 9 allowed for exemptions “for those individuals who are entitled to a disability-related reasonable accommodation or a sincerely held religious belief accommodation.”

Except Inslee offered little guidance on how employers should define the “accommodations”.

“The governor was vague, so we worked with the state attorney general to determine what the criteria should be for evaluating religious and medical exemptions,” Weiler said.

“If you’re a member of the faculty, there’s a process. If you’re staff, there’s a process. If you’re an administrator, there’s a process.”

And in every case, the evaluation process is blind.

Once WSU and the state attorney general’s office settled on the criteria for defining exemptions, the university trained a team of people to properly evaluate and judge the requests.

In each case, the name of the individual and his/her department has been removed. At least two trained evaluators will review each request “based on the criteria established with the attorney general,” Weiler explained.

There are two timelines at play:

– Requests for exemptions submitted by Monday will likely be evaluated before the Oct. 18 deadline set by Inslee’s emergency proclamation.

“It is our hope that exemption requests submitted by Oct. 4 can be reviewed and completed by Oct. 18, but it depends on the number of requests ultimately received,” Weiler said.

If the exemption request is denied and the individual does not get vaccinated by Oct. 18, the termination process would be initiated by the university.

(The timing would depend on the job; the process is different for tenured faculty than for administrative personnel, for example.)

– The track works differently for those who file exemption requests or get vaccinated after Oct. 4 but by the Oct. 18 mandate deadline. In other words: the stragglers.

The stragglers will be placed on unpaid leave starting Oct. 19 and can return to work only when they become fully vaccinated or when their exemption request is approved.

Exactly how long that process might take, Weiler declined to say. But we’ll assume Rolovich has already filed his request, or did so Monday. Most likely, judgment will be rendered before Oct. 18.

If an exemption request is approved in the blind review process, the employee (Rolovich) would discuss with his supervisor (Chun) whether his/her duties can still be performed, according to Weiler. (The human resources department could get involved, as well, to determine if reasonable accommodations can be created.)

If Rolovich’s exemption request is denied – and assuming he doesn’t get vaccinated by Oct. 18, which would send him down the track to unpaid leave – then he would be terminated for failing to meet university policy.

Section 1.2 of his employment contract, which was obtained by the Hotline, is clear:

“Recognition of duties: Employee agrees to devote Employee’s best efforts to the performance of their duties for the University, and to comply with and support all rules, regulations, policies, and decisions established or issued by the University.”

There are no exceptions, folks.

Either Rolovich gets vaccinated or receives the exemption, or he’s out.

(Given that the Oct. 18 deadline has been in place for months, we assume the Cougars have a succession plan in place should Rolovich be dismissed in-season.)

Would he be fired for cause?

Here’s the relevant section of the contract:

“Termination by University for just cause. The University shall have the right to terminate this Agreement for just cause (Just Cause) prior to its normal expiration. The term Just Cause shall include, in addition to and as examples of its normally understood meaning in employment contracts, any of the following:

“4.1.1: Deliberate and serious violations of the duties outlined in Section 1.2 of this Agreement or refusal or unwillingness to perform such duties in good faith and to the best of Employee’s abilities;

“4.1.2: Deliberate and serious violations by Employee of any of the other terms and conditions of this Agreement not remedied after fourteen (14) days’ written notice to Employee or, if the violation cannot reasonably be remedied within that period, Employee’s failure to make reasonable efforts to cure such violation;”

(Sections 4.1.3 and 4.1.4 are devoted to criminal or sexual misconduct, physical abuse, etc., and NCAA violations)

“4.1.5: Conduct of Employee seriously prejudicial to the best interests of the University athletic program; or

“4.1.6: Prolonged absence from duty without the consent of Employee’s supervisor.”

If the university fires Rolovich without cause – for example: if he receives an exemption but WSU wants no part of him beyond this season – then the Cougars would be on the hook for 60% of his remaining base salary.

How much? Rolovich receives $2 million annually in base pay and is signed for three more seasons. So he would be owed $3.6 million.

Might it come to that? This much is clear:

– Rolovich apparently has chosen to risk his career – his life’s work – on not getting a vaccine (Pfizer) that has received full authorization from the FDA or the vaccines (Moderna and Johnson & Johnson) with Emergency Use Authorization.

Many believe that in addition to ignorance, Rolovich is guilty of abdicating his responsibilities as a leader of young men and disgracing a university devoted to following the vaccine science.

– Meanwhile, the university seemingly has gone to great effort to ensure that the process for evaluating exemption requests is fair and that all employees will be treated equally, even the highest-paid employee in the state.

If Rolovich’s exemption request is rejected and he doesn’t get vaccinated by Oct. 18, the end should be swift and clean.

But if his request is approved, this could get really messy.