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About 160 staff at Eastern State Hospital bumping up against vaccine mandate

Eastern State Hospital, which is mainly housing for patients, has about 160 employees who are at risk of losing their jobs unless they provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19. within two weeks.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Eastern State Hospital, which is mainly housing for patients, has about 160 employees who are at risk of losing their jobs unless they provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19. within two weeks. (JESSE TINSLEY)

OLYMPIA – About 160 workers at Eastern State Hospital are at risk of losing their jobs if they do not submit their COVID-19 vaccination record to human resources in the next two weeks.

But that number is likely to go down as more people submit proof of vaccination or receive a religious or medical exemption to perhaps receive an accommodation.

“We don’t know today about what things will be like in two weeks,” said Tyler Hemstreet, a spokesman for Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees the hospital in Medical Lake.

The hospital already is mired in a worker shortage with dozens of job openings despite the offer of signing bonuses for many positions.

During the past two weeks, the vaccination rate among hospital staff has jumped from about 69% to some 80%, as of Tuesday. Hemstreet hesitated giving an exact number as it keeps changing as Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate deadline draws near.

The last day to get a Johnson & Johnson one-shot dose against COVID-19 has passed. However, the true effects on staffing statewide still remain mostly unknown.

In the most recent statewide data of Sept. 20, about 32% of state workers still had not had their vaccination record verified. The state expects to release updated data next Monday. Separation notices went out this week to workers still unvaccinated with no approved accommodations, but those notices can be rescinded.

Workers have until Oct. 18 to submit their vaccination record to their employer. Hemstreet said human resources in DSHS processes vaccination approvals hourly, meaning the vaccination rates are constantly going up.

At Eastern State Hospital, staff vaccination rates have inched up, and accommodation decisions are still being made, Hemstreet said. The facility also had its own vaccination clinic, which brought in a trickle of new vaccinations.

He also expects the number to rise after separation notices went out Monday.

“It tells the employee, ‘this is real, this is really happening,’ ” Hemstreet said.

DSHS sent out 1,108 letters to their employees, notifying them that they have yet to provide proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19. That makes up about 7% of the agency’s employees.

The letter lets employees know they will be separated from employment effective at the end of their work shift on Oct. 18, unless they provide proof of vaccination before then.

Human resources departments are also continuing to work through accommodation requests, although not every employee who receives an exemption can be accommodated in their current role. As of Sept. 20, about 800 state employees out of about 5,780 who had requested an accommodation had received one.

State workers who are not fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 have some flexibility, however. As long as they have one dose by Oct. 18, they can take up to a month of leave to receive a second dose and can still keep their job.

The Washington Federation of State Employees – the largest state employee’s union – reached a bargaining agreement with Inslee’s office that offered some flexibility with the vaccine process. The agreement only covers workers represented by the union. The governor’s office, however, has extended its provisions to nonrepresented workers as well, the Seattle Times reported Monday.

At Eastern State Hospital, like many other agencies and hospitals statewide, keeping staff throughout the pandemic has been challenging. To prepare for even more loss in staff due to the mandate, the state is preparing contingency plans.

Inslee has said he does not anticipate losing too many state workers because of the mandate but acknowledged that the state does have plans in place. He said the state normally has about a 10% turnover rate every year in its employees.

“This is not an untoward situation,” Inslee told reporters two weeks ago.

Hemstreet said the agency is working on their plans right now at Eastern State Hospital but could not comment on the specifics.

“We just don’t know the exact outcome until the mandate deadline,” he said, adding they will look at the situation after Oct. 18 and proceed.

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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