Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Oct. 19, 2021

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Washington state workers getting exemptions to avoid vaccines

But will they be able to keep their jobs?

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OLYMPIA — Washington government agencies are granting hundreds of religious and medical exemptions for state workers who don’t want to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

But so far, agencies like the Washington State Patrol have granted just a handful of accommodations that would allow workers exempted from getting the vaccine to keep their jobs by working in a position or schedule that protects others from potential infection.

Those clashing data points highlight the tensions over Gov. Jay Inslee’s order that state and school employees as well as thousands of health care workers get vaccinated by Oct. 18 or lose their jobs.

At least 8 percent of state workers subject to the mandate are seeking to avoid vaccination. If those employees left their jobs over the mandate, it could hobble government services, from the ferry systems to the foster-care program.

Now, Washington’s state agencies are sifting through exemption applications, and making contingency plans in the event large numbers of workers quit or retire early.

Those agencies have created their own application forms for religious and medical exemptions based on guidelines by the Inslee administration. Some agencies’ religious exemption forms are as simple as a few yes-or-no questions, asking whether the employee has a sincerely held religious belief that should prevent them from getting vaccinated. Other agencies probe a little deeper, asking workers to explain their religious convictions and why an employee feels they should be exempt from getting their shots.

Spokespersons declined to name what types of religious faiths or denominations were being granted exemptions. Some said that information is not being tallied, while others said revealing that and other information would compromise their efforts.

In the end, who gets an exemption might not matter much; the real question is whether any of those people receive an accommodation to keep working. So far, few accommodations have been issued that would keep unvaccinated workers on the job.

“You don’t want to be like entangling yourself too much in people’s religious beliefs, because what are you going to do with the information?” said University of Oregon School of Law professor Liz Tippett. “Are you going to decide their essay doesn’t pass, if you don’t like their essay?

“Most of the work in the accommodation process should be like, can they be reasonably accommodated,” she added. “And not like this in-depth examination of the nature and depth of their religious belief.”

As of Sept. 6, state agencies received requests for at least 3,891 religious exemptions and 892 medical exemptions, according to state data released Tuesday. Of those, 737 religious requests were granted — but accommodations were made for only seven workers.

Meanwhile, 49 medical exemptions have been granted, with accommodations provided so far in the single digits.

Department of Transportation worker Sean Pierce said the agency rejected his request for a religious exemption.

“They just said that they didn’t believe that I was, I guess, basically religious enough,” said Pierce, who described himself as a Christian without a particular denomination.

Pierce, who oversees two mechanics for the department in Colville, Stevens County, said he has heard from co-workers that their requests were approved.

“I joked that since I didn’t get the religious one, I must be a heathen or something,” he said. Those co-workers told Pierce that even though their religious exemptions were granted, he said, their requests for accommodation were denied.

The Washington State Patrol hasn’t yet found any practical accommodations for workers who have been granted religious exemptions, according to agency spokesperson Chris Loftis. The patrol has received at least 327 applications for religious exemptions, according to state data, and has approved every one of the requests that it has so far reviewed, according to Loftis, with roughly 100 applications still in the review process.

“Finding reasonable accommodations for such public facing positions and job classifications has proven very difficult,” Loftis wrote in an email. “To date, no practical accommodations that meet the guidelines set by the state have been found and the reassignment options offered have been refused. So this is still a very fluid situation impacting many WSP employees.”

All of the 22 medical exemptions so far requested by WSP employees have been granted, according to Loftis. Accommodations for six of those workers have been approved, while three have been denied, he wrote, “and 13 are still in review and discussion with the impacted employees.”

The agency’s decision against granting accommodations — which was first reported by conservative KTTH talk-show host Jason Rantz — was based on state workplace pandemic guidelines, according to Loftis.

Other agencies — like the Department of Enterprise Services, which oversees the Capitol campus — haven’t yet weighed in on whether there will be other work for exempted employees, according to agency spokesperson Linda Kent.

“For approved requests — we’ve not yet gotten to the point of processing whether accommodations can be made on those,” wrote Kent, whose agency has seen roughly 10 percent of its 724 workers request an exemption. “Once a person is approved for an exemption, the agency goes through a process of specifically evaluating the circumstances of the employee’s position.

“In some instances, it may be determined that there is not a suitable accommodation and the employee would not be able to continue to work,” added Kent, whose agency also performs services for government such as contracting, printing and risk management.

Washington has seen record numbers of COVID-19 cases, and related hospitalizations that have surged since July have begun to plateau, albeit at still-dangerous levels, state health officials said last week.

As of Sept. 6, a little under half of the 60,976 workers subject to the mandate had been verified as vaccinated, according to state data.

The real figure may be higher as workers continue to get verified. But the state data shows big differences between various state agencies.

Nearly three-quarters of the Department of Health’s workforce of 2,500 are vaccinated. More than 90 percent of Inslee’s staff of 60 have gotten their shots.

At the same time, just under half of the 9,850 employees of the Department of Social and Health Services — one of Washington’s largest state agencies — have been shown to be vaccinated.

Meanwhile, 47 percent of the Washington State Patrol’s 2,220 workers have been verified as vaccinated. Four members of the patrol are currently hospitalized for COVID-19, according to Loftis.

The patrol “will not question or doubt the sincerity of those convictions and will respect the ultimate decisions made” of those seeking an exemption, Loftis wrote.

“But to be clear — we want our friends and employees to get vaccinated not just to save jobs but to save lives as well,” he added. “Defeating COVID will take an all of society effort and we are all in this together.”

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