Sunday, November 28, 2021
Nov. 28, 2021

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Nearly 1,900 Washington state workers quit or are fired over COVID vaccine mandate

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OLYMPIA — About 3 percent of the 63,000 Washington state workers subject to Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate have left their jobs or were terminated as this week’s deadline passed.

So far, 1,887 state employees were terminated or left their positions over the mandate that they be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or lose their jobs, according to the Office of Financial Management.

Another roughly 3 percent, or 1,927 workers, received an accommodation that allows them to work in a less-public role without being vaccinated.

An additional 4.6 percent of state workers — nearly 2,900 — are still in a state of flux, according to a statement by OFM Tuesday afternoon.

That means they may have more time to get the vaccine or could be retiring, according to OFM. Others in that group could still be waiting to see if they get an accommodation — and if not, could still lose their jobs. Those outcomes will be determined in the weeks to come.

Of the state workers still employed, more than 92% are verified as vaccinated.

“The high number of state employees who have gotten vaccinated is good news,” wrote Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee in an email. “Good for the workers, their colleagues and the people they serve.

“While we are sorry to see that 3 percent go and we wish them well, we are pleased that it is not higher,” she added.

The vaccination push came as a fifth COVID-19 wave slammed into the state. It struck the unvaccinated particularly hard, causing a spike in deaths and hospitalizations across rural Washington, where vaccination rates have lagged behind urban areas.

In August, the governor put in place some of the strictest mandates in the nation, requiring state and school employees — as well as hundreds of thousands of health care workers — to get the jabs or lose their jobs.

But with the deep division and politicization over the pandemic and public health measures to curb it, Inslee’s mandates spurred protests, lawsuits and fierce backlash from conservatives.

In a statement Tuesday, conservative Republicans slammed the departure of workers and again decried Inslee’s use of emergency powers since the pandemic began.

“But I don’t think any of us realized it would come to this, and I think many in the state Legislature are having second thoughts today,” said Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, in prepared remarks. “Other states are requiring vaccinations, but none of them have taken it to the level of mass terminations. When one person makes all the decisions, there can be no question who is at fault.”

As workers protested the mandate, there were concerns that an exodus could hurt the government’s ability to provide services, from prisons and highway patrols to child-abuse investigations.

The high vaccination rates, however, have dampened some of those concerns.

At the Department of Corrections, about 350 workers — roughly 4.5 percent of the agency workforce — are leaving. But those numbers are spread out across 12 prisons, plus the administrative headquarters and other offices.

“All facilities have adequate staffing for operations,” wrote DOC spokesperson Rachel Ericson in an email.

The employees leaving state service range from a custodian at the Capitol campus to Washington State Patrol troopers around the state and Washington State University football coach — and highest-paid public employee — Nick Rolovich.

Numbers at other large agencies in recent days, according to their spokespeople, included:

  • At the Department of Social and Health Services, 92 percent of 15,670 workers have been verified as vaccinated. About 3 percent have received an accommodation that allows them to keep working without the vaccine. Another 2 percent — or roughly 313 workers — have been let go. The remaining workers have a request for accommodation pending or have started the vaccination process.
  • At the Washington Department of Transportation, 402 employees are leaving over the mandate, according to that agency. That includes about 130 workers in the ferries division, which alone employs roughly 2,000.
  • At the Department of Fish and Wildlife, about 38 staff — or 2 percent of the agency’s workforce — lost their jobs over the mandate.
  • At the Washington State Patrol, 127 individuals had left over the mandate, or nearly 6 percent of the agency workforce.

Those departures included, according to WSP, 53 civil servants and 74 commissioned officers: 67 troopers, 6 sergeants, and 1 captain.

“We will miss every one of them,” said Chief John R. Batiste in a statement Tuesday morning. “I truly wish that you were staying with us. You have my utmost appreciation for the hard and successful work that you have provided during your valued WSP careers. You will forever have our respect for your courage and your commitment in all you have done on behalf of the agency.”

Later on Tuesday morning, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office — which does not have a vaccine mandate in place — was posting recruiting notices on social media.

In a tweet, the office called out to troopers and other law enforcement subject to mandates.

“Looking for a place where you are appreciated & wanted?” read the tweet, which included a recruitment video featuring Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. “Please contact a member of our Recruitment Team today.”

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