Washington State Patrol announced the departure of 127 personnel as a result of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, including 67 troopers, six sergeants and one captain. Olympia reporter Austin Jenkins tells us how the vaccine mandate deadline has affected Washington State workers.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
DAVE MILLER: Just like their counterparts in Oregon, hundreds of thousands of public workers in Washington state had until yesterday [Tuesday, Oct. 19] to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or get a valid exemption. And just like in Oregon, the Washington vaccine mandate faced legal challenges, political pushback and dire warnings about staffing shortages. So what actually has happened? Austin Jenkins covers Washington politics for OPB. Can you remind us who is subject to this particular mandate?
AUSTIN JENKINS: This mandate applied to about 800,000 workers across the state of Washington. It included 60,000 state government employees, 155,000 K-12 employees and about 400,000 health care and long term care workers.
MILLER: So actually very similar to what we talked about yesterday [Monday, October 18] in terms of the categories of workers involved, what exactly was required of them? What options did they have?
JENKINS: It was really just one choice - get vaccinated or get fired and the Governor was pretty blunt about that. There was no testing in lieu of the vaccination option. But workers could apply for a medical or religious exemption. [However] even if an exemption was granted, there was no guarantee of getting an accommodation which was necessary to keep one’s job. So you could try to get the exemption but there was still not going to be a guarantee you could keep working.
MILLER: Can you give us a sense for the percentage of workers who met the mandate by being vaccinated?
JENKINS: For state workers, as of a couple of weeks ago (and unfortunately the data lags that far back) but it was at about 90%. We are supposed to get updated numbers today [TUESDAY, OCT 19]. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that goes up to 94 or 95%. But keep in mind not all agencies are equal. Some had 100% compliance, some were much lower. Some state institutions where some of the most vulnerable people are, were much lower. So it really is a bit of a patchwork across the State.
MILLER: Do you know, based on what you’ve seen from reporting or numbers over the last few weeks. If more people got vaccinated specifically because of the mandate - that was the whole idea for Inslee and for Kate Brown and for other governors, especially in blue states - did people get vaccinated because they had to?
JENKINS: That’s a good question because people had to verify that they were vaccinated. So a lot of people who were already vaccinated, needed to take that second step of showing their vaccination card to their HR department. In that sense, the mandate didn’t change their vaccination status or get them to do something they hadn’t done before. Clearly though for some other percentage (and we don’t know what that percentage is) it was motivating, galvanizing, a forcing mechanism to go out and finally get vaccinated.
And that’s why the Governor announced this in August but didn’t actually enforce it until yesterday [Monday, October 18]. Obviously he wanted to give time for people to get vaccinated. And once they decide to do that, it takes a while because of the two-dose regimen.
MILLER: So that was the Governor’s real hope, that people would get vaccinated. But as you noted, there was one way out - a medical or a religious exemption. How common was that? How common was it for these public workers to actually avail themselves of these exemptions?
JENKINS: So, again, looking at the data from a couple weeks ago, about 6,000 state employees had requested an exemption. That’s about 10% of the workforce that was covered by this mandate. [Among] the State workforce, better than 80% were getting their exemption approved. But here’s the kicker. Only about 30% of those were getting an accommodation to stay on the payroll. Now again, that percentage may be higher when we see the new numbers. It may be a lot higher. But the bottom line is that people who got exemptions but not accommodations are going to be among those workers who lost their jobs. Not just people who said, “to heck with the Governor, I’m not getting vaccinated. I’m out of here”.
MILLER: This does seem like maybe the starkest difference between Oregon and Washington. We talked yesterday [Monday, October 18] about the guidelines for employees in Oregon who received exemptions and it was all over the place. Some employers treated vaccinated and unvaccinated people completely the same. Others put in place things like weekly testing or much more strictly enforced social distancing. But what are the guidelines for unvaccinated employees in Washington who got some kind of, say religious exemption?
JENKINS: Speaking to the state employee workforce, the State took a hardline and that really was from on high. That was the Governor’s office saying to the State agencies that these workarounds that you just described are alternatives or accommodations really wouldn’t be acceptable accommodations and were generally only granted if the person could be moved to a back office or telework position. So for front line staff like prison correctional officers or nurses in state psychiatric hospitals or people working in state institutions for the developmentally abled disabled, they could not remain on the front lines.
And that is in contrast to what we’re hearing about. For instance, city firefighters and teachers who are also subject to the Governor’s mandate, but aren’t employed by the state, we’re hearing they are being accommodated in their current positions. For instance, they might have to double mask and submit to weekly testing. But Governor Inslee here, was clear that he didn’t think masking and testing was an acceptable alternative to getting vaccinated for the state employee workforce, even for people who got exemptions.
MILLER: There’s a really big divide there between different categories of workers - who the employer is, whether it’s a state or a city or a county. Broadly, how much have state services or public services in the state of Washington been impacted by the relatively small percentage of people who chose not to get vaccinated or who got an exemption but can’t actually perform their jobs?
JENKINS: We really don’t know yet. But we’re starting to get some hints. I think it’s possible that this vaccine mandate will reduce the overall state workforce by five or 6%. But again, some agencies in some locations are going to be hit harder than others. It appears to be very geographic. We know that the prison system, as of last week, was preparing to lose about 500 employees and it was making plans to shift workers to other prisons. It was talking about possibly having to idle some prison programming that requires staff to supervise.
I just heard from the Department of Social and Health Services here in Washington, which says 92% of its employees provided proof of vaccination. Of the remaining 5% have either received an accommodation or that’s still in review. 2% are actually losing their jobs And 1% are completing their vaccination. So that doesn’t sound like a huge attrition number. But when you’re talking about thousands of employees, a few 100 can make a difference, especially in locations where they’re already struggling to staff fully and that would definitely be state institutions.
MILLER: We also saw some pretty dramatic numbers from the Washington State Patrol, the state’s police agency. 6% of the Patrol’s overall workforce, including 74 commissioned officers - meaning not office workers - decided to quit rather than get vaccinated. That seems pretty significant, especially given what we talked about the last time you were on - the hiring challenges that the State Patrol has faced for a number of years. What did leadership say about those staff losses?
JENKINS: Well, to your point, what the State Patrol is saying is that this attrition and some of these people will have been fired because they didn’t comply with the mandate. Some will have taken retirement. But what they said is this essentially doubles the trooper shortage that the agency was already dealing with. I spoke this morning with Chris Loftis who’s a spokesperson for the Patrol and here’s what he said:
CHRIS LOFTIS: It’s a situation of consequence and it will take a, it will take time and it will take planning and thought to come out of it. That said, we’re an agency of size, we’re an agency of resources or an agency of scope so we will move resources around accordingly.
JENKINS: Loftis said that the motoring public probably won’t notice a change, but he did say it’s possible that troopers wouldn’t be able to respond to all minor non-injury crashes, especially in more rural areas. The State Patrol dispatcher staff is also likely to be stretched thin. I talked to a state patrol sergeant in the Vancouver area. He and his wife both work for the Patrol. He was a sergeant, she was the dispatcher. Both left because of this. They got religious exemptions but not accommodations. They’re saying that District 5 in Southwest Washington when fully staffed would have 75 troopers. They’re saying it’ll be down to 51. I have not been able to confirm that with the State Patrol, but that’s the number they say their captain was using in that District.
MILLER: What have you been hearing recently from critics of this statewide mandate?
JENKINS: Yesterday, [Monday, October 18] the House and Senate Republican leadership - they’re in the minority here in the Legislature - put out a joint statement saying that the vaccine mandate threatens critical services and public safety. They called it unnecessarily punitive and they said there should have been a testing option for those who didn’t want to get vaccinated. In their Statement, the Leaders said, and I quote here,
OREGON JOINT HOUSE AND SENATE REPUBLICAN LEADERSHIP: “We cannot expect a COVID-free society. We need to find ways to mitigate the virus without making it even harder for people to provide for their families.”
JENKINS: And they also criticized, as they have for months now, the Governor operating under emergency powers. The Republicans continually say that the Governor’s emergency powers need to be curbed, reigned in, that the legislature should come back into special session. Start making some of these decisions and reel in the Governor.
MILLER: But what’s next? What’s on the horizon in terms of the state’s pandemic response?
JENKINS: It’s a good question. So already Governor Inslee has announced that starting November 15th, people will have to show proof of being vaccinated or a negative COVID test to attend ticketed indoor events of 1,000 people or more or outdoor events with 10,000 or more attendees. Something else I’m watching for is whether the Governor will impose a mandate that all eligible school children have to get vaccinated against COVID, something that California has already mandated. And both he and the State’s health secretary have said they are looking at a technical solution to make it easier to prove vaccine status that could be a precursor for requiring proof of vaccination to do things like go to restaurants and bars, something that some local counties are already doing here. Stay tuned.
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