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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane firefighters, state employees sue Inslee over vaccine mandate

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 6, 2021

A crew from the Spokane Fire Department sprays water on an unfinished parking structure at Sacred Heart in this photo from 2018. Firefighters across Washington, including many from Spokane, are now suing the state over its vaccine mandate.   (Libby Kamrowski/The Spokesman-Review)
A crew from the Spokane Fire Department sprays water on an unfinished parking structure at Sacred Heart in this photo from 2018. Firefighters across Washington, including many from Spokane, are now suing the state over its vaccine mandate.  (Libby Kamrowski/The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Twenty state employees and Spokane firefighters filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Gov. Jay Inslee and agency heads over the vaccine mandate in Washington.

The lawsuit alleges the governor exceeded his authority, deprived them of their freedoms and violated their due process. The plaintiffs consist of Spokane firefighters, state troopers and Department of Social and Health Services workers from Spokane and Idaho.

State employees, health care workers and educators have until Oct. 18 to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Because fully vaccinated means two weeks post-final shot, workers had to receive their last dose by Monday.

The lawsuit is led by a DSHS employee, a state trooper, a Department of Transportation employee and Spokane firefighters, who all say they have not received the proper accommodations despite their religious or medical exemptions being approved. In its guidance to state agencies, the state has said not every unvaccinated employee could be accommodated in their current position if it would mean interacting with the public or other co-workers.

The lawsuit cites the City of Spokane’s decision to not accommodate any firefighters because of how often they interact with employees and others. The city says accommodating exemptions would “result in undue hardship or burden and pose a direct threat to the safety and health of employees and others.”

As of last week, the city said 52 of approximately 300 fire department employees have been approved for an exemption but could not be accommodated.

According to the lawsuit, Shelley Engle, a DSHS employee, received a religious exemption but was told there was no accommodation for her in her current position, meaning she would need to be reassigned. As of Wednesday, she still had not heard from human resources about the reassignment process. If she does not get approved for reassignment, she would have to become fully vaccinated by Oct. 18.

Because the last date to receive a second dose has passed, “there is no way for Plaintiff Engle to comply with the mandate,” according to the lawsuit.

Engle is one of more than 1,500 DSHS employees who has asked for an exemption, as of the most recent state data from Sept. 20. Only 57 had been approved as of that date. The state plans to release updated numbers Monday.

Another plaintiff, state trooper Travis Yeager, received a religious exemption but did not receive an accommodation. He received the second dose of the vaccine, despite his religious opposition, according to the lawsuit.

As of Sept. 20, the state patrol had received 423 exemption requests but had only accommodated five.

Because of these situations, the lawsuit says the plaintiffs were not given “a meaningful opportunity to be heard” by their employers, violating due process.

The governor’s office had not seen the full lawsuit as of Wednesday afternoon. In response, spokesperson Tara Lee wrote in an email that the accommodation process is different for each work setting.

“It is difficult to weigh in on the process between each employer and each employee, or what a proper accommodation is in any particular work setting,” Lee wrote.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to stop the mandate as it “violates federally secured rights and may not be enforced consistently with federal law.” It specifically cites violations to the Americans with Disabilities Act and Washington’s discrimination law.

The lawsuit claims the governor exceeded his authority during an emergency in enacting this law and that it is up to the Legislature to do so.

Lastly, the lawsuit claims the governor and the agency heads they are suing are liable for battery because they intended to cause harm or offense.

Battery, the lawsuit claims, does not have to result in personal injury.

It’s not the first lawsuit over the vaccine mandate.

The largest state employee’s union sued Inslee over the mandate, claiming the governor’s office did not bargain in good faith over the effects of it. That lawsuit was soon resolved as the governor’s office went back to the bargaining table and reached an agreement.

He is also facing a lawsuit from nearly 600 state workers, who claimed he exceeded his authority. A week ago, a Walla Walla County Superior Court judge granted a request from the state to change the venue to Thurston County.

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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