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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane firefighters union still hopes to win leeway for unvaccinated employees

A crew from the Spokane Fire Department sprays water on an unfinished parking structure at Sacred Heart in this photo from 2018.  (Libby Kamrowski/The Spokesman-Review)

Some unvaccinated Spokane Fire Department employees may still be allowed to work after all, according to city and union leaders.

Conversations are ongoing between the union and the city regarding “a small number of employees,” according to city spokesman Brian Coddington.

Four unvaccinated fire department employees retired or resigned, while 16 opted for a leave or layoff option provided by the city ahead of the state’s Oct. 18 vaccination deadline for health care workers.

It is unclear which of those employees could be brought back and under what conditions. Both city and union officials declined to delve into specifics about the negotiations.

The conversations center on a “very small subset” of those who left, Coddington said. They would not return in their original job, but in a different role in the department.

“All those options that people were given, it was intentional for them to come back in good standing … if they could comply with the mandate or find another way back,” Coddington said.

Unlike several other fire departments in Spokane County, the city of Spokane declined to make accommodations for the fire department employees who had applied for – and received – an exemption to the statewide vaccine mandate.

Inslee ordered that health care workers be vaccinated by Oct. 18. It applied to firefighters because they are licensed as emergency medical technicians.

Several departments allowed unvaccinated firefighters to operate under separate protocols from their vaccinated colleagues. Spokane Valley, for example, relocated all of its unvaccinated firefighters to two stations, where battalion chiefs will lead daily COVID checks.

The city of Spokane said that its 52 exemptions, out of a force of 318 employees, was too many to make an exception for. The city argued that safety measures like testing would be too costly and that retaining unvaccinated firefighters would be a safety risk to the community and to vaccinated firefighters.

Of the 52 who requested an exemption, more than half rescinded it ahead of the deadline.

The union is “still in the middle of trying to get some accommodations for our folks,” said Lee McNamee, the interim president of Local 29.

McNamee stepped in after former president, Tim Archer, was forced out due to his vaccination status.

Notably, Mayor Nadine Woodward has elected not to implement a vaccine mandate for other city employees like the policy ordered by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.