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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Some 50 Spokane Fire Department employees stand to be fired next month over COVID-19 vaccine objections

Nearly 50 unvaccinated Spokane firefighters will be fired next month if they do not receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

The city says it could not make reasonable accommodations for them under an emergency proclamation issued by Gov. Jay Inslee that requires state employees and health care workers to be vaccinated.

According to the city, 52 of the approximately 300 fire department employees have been approved for an exemption to the vaccine mandate. Two were for medical reasons while the rest sought to avoid the shots on religious grounds. Four people have withdrawn their exemption.

The city considered ways to accommodate the exempted firefighters, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington, but doing so “presented an undue hardship and too great of a risk to the public and the other Spokane Fire Department employees.”

Tim Archer, the president of Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29, opposes the city’s stance, which he said exceeds the requirements of the governor’s mandate. Archer is among those who reject the vaccine on religious grounds – a choice he described as personal – and expects to lose his job in October.

“It doesn’t need to be ‘you get vaccinated or you’re fired,’ ” Archer told The Spokesman-Review. “My life has been about public safety and taking care of our citizens. If I thought I was endangering a person, of course I wouldn’t.”

Spokane firefighters are subject to the governor’s mandate because they are all licensed as EMTs or paramedics. About 300 Spokane Fire Department employees in total, including some in administrative roles, are subject to the requirement. Nearly all of the exemption requests were made by licensed emergency medical professionals.

There is still time for them to get vaccinated without losing their jobs under a variety of options laid out by the city. They may also choose to apply to a different city job. If they are laid off, they would be placed on a “layoff list” for three years and would be eligible to rejoin the fire department – as long as they abide by any existing vaccine requirements.

The mandate

The city feared that accommodating about 50 firefighters’ vaccine exemptions could hamper the fire department’s quality of service.

Several venues in the city require proof of vaccination to enter, Coddington noted. If a firefighter could not enter the facility, the department could be forced to dispatch additional resources to the scene and possibly delay response time.

“The likelihood of an unvaccinated employee being on one of those shifts is pretty high,” Coddington said. “First and foremost, the response time is critical.”

Archer argued that reasonable accommodations for unvaccinated firefighters were functionally in place under existing public health guidelines before the governor issued his mandate in August, which set a vaccination deadline of Oct. 18 for health care workers.

“At my station, we have eight folks working out of it. I had to wear a mask and socially distance, but nobody else did. That was fine,” Archer said.

But Inslee’s proclamation did open the city and its employees to more liability, the city argued.

After Inslee issued his proclamation, the union and city negotiated its impacts, but the union could not reject or overturn the mandate outright. They came to an agreement, but Archer described the premise of the negotiations as “we’re going to run over you with a truck, and we’ll talk with you about how and when we’re going to do that.”

Archer repeatedly noted that vaccinated people are still able to spread the virus.

That is true, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but not the full picture.

While vaccinated people are more likely to contract and spread the delta variant than they were previous variants, unvaccinated people are more likely than vaccinated people to contract COVID-19 in general and have more severe symptoms.

“Infections with the Delta variant in vaccinated persons potentially have reduced transmissibility than infections in unvaccinated persons, although additional studies are needed,” the CDC states.

Even with safeguards like masking, COVID-19 has affected the fire department and city “significantly,” Coddington said.

The fire department attributed $2.1 million in overtime, quarantine and workers’ compensation costs to the pandemic in 2020 and more than $1 million in 2021. It lost 2,633 staff hours to quarantine and 2,383 hours to job-related COVID-19 cases in 2020. In 2021, it lost 3,063 staff hours to quarantine and 1,876 hours to job-related COVID-19 cases thus far.

The city has paid out $360,000 in response to 434 workers’ compensation claims, including 123 employees who have filed multiple claims related to COVID-19.

“Making sure it’s a safe work environment for everybody is top of mind,” Coddington said.

The city considered routinely testing those with exemptions, but the cost was too high, estimated at between $300,000 and $1 million annually depending on the frequency.

Making accommodations also would have put department leaders in the position of enforcing their parameters. However, several of those who filed for an exemption are themselves in leadership positions, Coddington noted.

The city also fears it could face liability if guidelines are not followed. Not only would employees potentially lose their licenses, but the city itself could be open to legal action, according to Coddington.

Archer objected to the city’s use of hypothetical liability, which he believes is a violation of civil rights.

Other fire departments in Washington have approached the situation differently, Archer said, and been able to make accommodations for firefighters with approved exemptions.

The South King Fire & Rescue Board of Commissioners recently banned unvaccinated firefighters from providing face-to-face medical care, the Federal Way Mirror reported.

Archer acknowledged it would be expensive for the Spokane Fire Department to ensure more than 50 firefighters are never in close contact with a person requiring medical care, but said he is comfortable donning additional personal protective equipment like that worn through the pandemic.

Comparisons to other cities and counties are misleading, Coddington argued, because a smaller percentage of their firefighters have sought exemptions.

The roughly 50 exemptions in Spokane “is a much higher number than you’ve seen around the state, and some of the departments held out as examples have single-digit exemption requests,” Coddington said.

The city is not summarily firing exempted employees on Oct. 19. Instead, it laid out several options, some of which provide additional time to get vaccinated and meet the governor’s order.

An employee can choose to be laid off, which allows them the option to return within three years. They can take leave without pay for up to 90 days or use paid leave through Nov. 30.

Employees can also choose retirement, separation or resignation.

Under all of the options, they are considered to be leaving in good standing with the city.

Employees can apply for another job with the city, for which Mayor Nadine Woodward has not instituted a vaccine mandate.

It’s unclear how many of the unvaccinated employees in the Spokane Fire Department will be willing to lose their jobs. Firefighters like Archer are paid well compared to the median per-capita income in Spokane. He earned a salary of $94,794 in 2020, according to city data.

Archer may collect early retirement, but with a penalty, he said. He will have to look for other work as he did not expect to retire for another seven years.

Archer stressed the union has supported vaccination efforts throughout the pandemic and does not oppose the governor’s mandate, it only stands against the city’s handling of it.

“This is nefarious and this is wrong, and I feel like I’d be supporting a form of evil by supporting what’s happening,” Archer said.

The city is hosting a vaccine clinic for first responders and their families at the Spokane Police Academy from noon to 5 p.m. Friday.