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Washington state employee union ratifies deal with Inslee on vaccine mandate

Paramedics administer a shot to a pickup driver at the Spokane Fire Training Center Field House earlier this year.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

OLYMPIA – The largest state employee’s union has agreed to a deal with Gov. Jay Inslee’s office to require vaccinations of its members.

The Washington Federation of State Employees approved an agreement to get workers vaccinated by Oct. 18 but gives them some flexibility and guidance on exemptions.

More than 80% of members voted in favor of the agreement.

“We understand that vaccination, masking and social distancing are necessary for ending this public health crisis,” union president Mike Yestramski said in a statement. “Now, we have an agreement that incentivizes vaccination and helps ensure a fair process for workers requesting a medical or religious exemption.”

The union filed a lawsuit last month against the governor, asking a court to delay the implementation of the vaccine mandate until bargaining was finalized. The union claimed the governor’s office had not bargained in good faith over the requirement. After the union filed the lawsuit, the governor’s office provided counter proposals, and the deal was settled in negotiations.

The agreement gives employees some deadline flexibility during the exemption process and requires employers to assist in vaccine access.

Members of the union had the opportunity to vote on the tentative agreement, although the mandate itself was not negotiable. Members could only vote on the deal that was reached and had it failed, the governor’s office could have proceeded with the mandate without the negotiated agreement in place.

“Our union was able to achieve what we set out for – a victory for public health and due process,” Yestramski said.

All state employees who get the vaccine earn one extra personal leave day to be taken within the 2022 calendar year.

Time spent traveling to the vaccination site and receiving the vaccine are considered hours worked, according to the agreement.

Those who wish to retire by the end of the year can do so without getting a vaccine, if they choose. Employees who are not fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 but have already submitted retirement paperwork can use accrued leave or leave without pay until their retirement date.

The deal also outlines the exemption process, something the union said in its lawsuit had little clarity without bargaining.

The union encourages employers to provide their exemption request and necessary materials no later than Sept. 13 to provide enough time to go through the process. If exemptions are approved, employees will proceed automatically to the accommodation process.

If an employee returns their exemption request by Sept. 13 and cooperates with the process, but their request is still being processed on Oct. 18, the employee will not lose any pay until the exemption decision is final.

If the exemption is approved but an accommodation, such as allowing the worker to interact with fewer people, has not been finalized by Oct. 18, the employee can use accrued leave after Oct. 18 until the accommodation decision is provided. If the exemption request is denied, however, the employee can use accrued leave and leave without pay for up to 45 days to become fully vaccinated.

For employees who received their first dose of the vaccine late and are not fully vaccinated by Oct. 18, they may use leave without pay for up to 30 days to become fully vaccinated. Those employees can also return to their previous position or a vacant position in the same job class upon being fully vaccinated. Employers have until Nov. 17 to use this provision.

Employers will be required to cover associated costs with finding a second medical opinion during the exemption process, if they feel an employee requires one. The medical appointment is considered work time.

The agreement covers the 47,000 state workers represented by the Washington Federation of State Employees. It excludes professional staff and employees of separately elected officials, such as the attorney general, secretary of state and commissioner of public lands.

Other groups that fall under this mandate, such as Department of Corrections workers or ferry operators, have separate unions and different agreements that must be bargained separately with the governor’s office.

Inslee told reporters Thursday he thought the WFSE agreement reached was a good template to possibly be extended to all state employees that fall under the mandate, but each union has to bargain separately.

“So far I think that template is a good one,” Inslee said. “So I think we’ll succeed on that in as many situations as we can.”

Washington’s vaccine mandate currently extends to state employees, health care workers and educators in K-12 and higher ed.

President Joe Biden on Thursday announced he was mandating vaccines for federal employees, health care workers at facilities that receive federal funding and all workers at companies with 100 employees or more. Biden’s mandate will apply to about 100 million workers.

The state employee deal also addresses staffing shortages and contingency plan if the mandate leaves state agencies without a significant number of workers. The agreement requires agency contingency plans to be shared with the union and bargained by the union as soon as possible.

Inslee said Thursday he did not think there would be staffing shortages but that the state was preparing “realistic” contingency plans just in case. He said Thursday he did not know how many state employees had already been vaccinated.

Some agencies, such as the Department of Corrections, have warned that there will likely be staffing shortages if there is no flexibility regarding the Oct. 18 deadline. Fears of staffing shortages in the ferry system had been swirling, but talks of a possible “sickout” by ferry employees didn’t happen this past Labor Day weekend, according to the Seattle Times.

In a Thursday bargaining update from Teamsters 117, whose members include Department of Corrections workers, the union said it has yet to reach an agreement with the governor’s office.

“Knowing that working in a prison comes with a certain level of risk, we are genuinely concerned about the State’s ability to staff the positions necessary to operate a safe and humane correctional system after October 18th,” the update read.

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.