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As overtime costs mount, some Spokane City Council members mull asking to rehire unvaccinated firefighters

As the sun sets in downtown Spokane, Washington, a pedestrian walks by the entrance of the City Hall building, Monday, Oct 11, 2021.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
As the sun sets in downtown Spokane, Washington, a pedestrian walks by the entrance of the City Hall building, Monday, Oct 11, 2021. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Facing a potential cost of millions of dollars to cover firefighting shifts this year, three Spokane City Council members signed on last week to a plea to city administration to consider rehiring Fire Department staff let go or reassigned after they refused to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

“To me, I think it’s really, really important,” said City Councilman Michael Cathcart, who brought the nonbinding resolution before the panel on Monday. “One of the things we can get a handle on is increasing personnel.”

But the proposal, which evenly divided the council members present Monday night, would not solve a staffing problem that dates back several years and is not driven primarily by the two dozen workers who did not get their shots, said Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, who did not vote Monday, said he wouldn’t support the request because he believes the city made the right call in interpreting Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate to include firefighters responding to medical calls. That decision is also being challenged in federal court, Beggs noted, in a case that’s scheduled to go to trial in October.

“You don’t want unvaccinated people performing medical care,” Beggs said. “The administration did the right thing from the beginning.”

Spokane City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who voted in favor of the resolution that calls for Schaeffer and the mayor’s office to identify “a path forward, including any necessary COVID-19 mitigations to immediately rehire all Spokane firefighters who were separated from employment due to pandemic regulations,” said she, too, was concerned about contact between unvaccinated workers and the public. But Kinnear, the former chair of the city’s Public Safety Committee, said she’d brought concerns about ballooning overtime costs in the department to the city administration over a year ago and nothing changed.

Cathcart cited a figure of anticipated costs reaching $7 million from a recent presentation by the Fire Department, a doubling of what was spent in 2017 in a department that frequently relies on overtime spending to cover sick leave, paid time off, family and medical leave and more.

“Steps could have been made to acknowledge it’s a problem,” Kinnear said. “My vote Monday, my comments, expressed my extreme frustration at being ignored and dismissed.”

Kinnear suggested additional testing might be made available, now that it’s cheaper, for the employees if they were rehired to work with the public.

The department’s records indicate that 23 firefighters chose not to get vaccinated when it was established as a condition of continued employment in October. Twelve of those employees received accommodations to work in other areas of the department, including dispatch and as a fire prevention marshal. Three chose to retire, while two others resigned, with at least one seeking employment in an outlying district of Spokane County that does not require vaccinations in order to work. Four were laid off.

Brian Coddington, spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the city made a “difficult decision” in October after reviewing the mandate from the governor and what would be feasible for the department.

“It was determined that it wasn’t going to be practical” to allow unvaccinated workers to continue in their health care-related jobs, Coddington said. That position hasn’t changed, he said.

If the department were to rehire those firefighters as frontline workers, there would still be the issue of backfilling the marshal and dispatch positions, Schaeffer said. The overtime costs would be spread to different parts of the department, not eliminated.

“If I take people out, even if it happens tomorrow, we’re still going to have holes,” Schaeffer said.

Fifty positions are vacant in the department this year, a consequence not of the mandate alone, but of compounding issues, Schaeffer said.

The department hired firefighters with grant money in 2016, but had to go to voters three years later to approve a $5.8 million levy that would be used for both police and fire personnel. That proposition passed with 64% of the vote, allowing the taxes to be collected, but the hiring couldn’t take place until the money was collected. Then COVID-19 hit, and the department could not hold its usual academies to start bringing firefighters into the department, Schaeffer said.

Current overtime costs are offset by the savings of having fewer firefighters on the books, Schaeffer said, but academies are being held right now with plans to bring on board dozens of new employees by year’s end.

Cathcart and Councilman Jonathan Bingle, who along with Kinnear voted in favor of the resolution, acknowledged that the hiring would not completely solve the staffing problem. But they suggested bringing the firefighters back would help alleviate costs until staffing levels returned to normal, following a series of academies being held this year by the department.

“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” said Bingle, who was the subject of a Labor & Industries complaint earlier this year for refusing to wear a mask on city property in defiance of a state mandate and introduced a resolution condemning vaccine mandates. “And I would say now, the right thing we can do, is bring them back.”

Councilmembers Zack Zappone and Karen Stratton both pointed out that the department made accommodations for workers who chose not to get vaccinated. Stratton said she was still concerned about workers potentially transmitting the virus to the city’s most vulnerable. Stratton said she felt that concern personally while caring for her ailing mother after contracting COVID-19 herself.

“It’s also emotional on the side of the person that I was during COVID, and worrying every single day taking care of my mom, and wondering, as many times as we had to call for service, praying that whoever came in her home … that they didn’t have COVID,” she said.

Vaccine research has shown that the available shots do a good job preventing serious illness, said Jesse Erasmus, an acting assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Washington and director of virology at HDT Bio, a pharmaceutical research firm based in Seattle. The effectiveness of slowing or eliminating transmission of the virus, however, wanes with time and as new mutations of the virus proliferate in the community, he said.

“As time goes on, it’s much harder to protect the upper airway from infection,” Erasmus said.

An oft-cited study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in February used data from more than 108,000 COVID-19 patients in England during the height of the delta variant of COVID-19. It found that vaccination provided less transmission protection in patients who contracted the delta variant than the alpha variant of the virus, and Erasmus said it was likely subsequent variations of the virus would see similar reduced transmission effects.

That’s not a reason not to get vaccinated, however, Erasmus was quick to point out. Companies are also developing next-generation vaccines that will more effectively reduce viral loads in patients that catch new variants.

The data shows that frequent testing, like that suggested by Kinnear, could be an effective method to getting people safely back into the workplace, Erasmus said.

“Now we have more tools,” he said.

Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson cited the ongoing legal proceedings and guidance from the city’s legal department in making her decision not to support the resolution. While some former members of the fire department testified to the council that they would return to work if asked and felt the department was not adequately staffed, Wilkerson said there are firefighters who applauded the decision to require vaccination.

“There are other firefighters who don’t agree with this. They don’t feel comfortable, those fire houses are like dormitories,” she said.

Cathcart said he intends to reintroduce the proposal in some form in an effort to address the overtime costs. The 3-3 vote on Monday means the proposal was shot down, but it could be reintroduced under the city’s rules by going through a committee or by being brought back by a council member who voted against it originally, he said.

“The only option is we have to staff up,” he said. “We’re really way behind the eight ball.”

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