Washington State Employees Get Exemptions to Avoid COVID-19 Vaccine – But Will They Keep Their Jobs?

OLYMPIA – Government agencies in Washington are granting hundreds of religious and medical exemptions to state employees who do not want to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

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

These conflicting data points highlight tensions over Gov. Jay Inslee’s order that state and school workers as well as thousands of healthcare workers get vaccinated before October 18, or lose their jobs .

At least 8% of state agents subject to the mandate seek to avoid vaccination. If these employees quit their jobs during the tenure, it could hamper government services, from ferry systems to the foster care program.

Today, Washington state agencies are reviewing exemption requests and making contingency plans in case large numbers of workers quit or take early retirement.

These agencies have created their own religious and medical exemptions request forms based on guidelines from the Inslee administration.

Some agencies’ religious exemption forms are as simple as a few yes or no questions, asking if the employee has a sincere religious belief that should prevent them from getting the vaccine.

Other agencies probe a bit deeper, asking workers to explain their religious beliefs and why an employee feels they should be exempt from getting the vaccine.

Spokesmen declined to name the types of denominations or religious denominations that were granted exemptions. Some said the information is not counted, while others said revealing this and other information would compromise their efforts.

In the end, who gets an exemption may not really matter: the real question is whether any of these people get an accommodation to continue working.

So far, few accommodations have been issued that would keep unvaccinated workers at work.

“You don’t want to get too involved in people’s religious beliefs, because what are you going to do with the information? Said Liz Tippett, professor at the University of Oregon Law School. “Are you going to decide that their essay won’t pass, if you don’t like their essay?” “

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

As of September 6, state agencies have received requests for at least 3,891 religious exemptions and 892 medical exemptions, according to state data released Tuesday. Of these, 737 religious requests were granted – but accommodations were made for just seven workers.

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

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

“They just said they didn’t think I was, I guess, religious enough deep down,” said Pierce, who described himself as an unnamed Christian.

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

“I joked that since I didn’t get the religious degree, I must be a pagan or something,” he said. These colleagues told Pierce that even though their religious exemptions had been granted, he said, their requests for accommodation were denied.

According to agency spokesperson Chris Loftis, the Washington State Patrol has yet to find practical accommodations for workers who have been granted religious exemptions. The patrol received at least 327 requests for religious exemptions, according to state data.

This agency has approved every single application it has reviewed so far, according to Loftis, with around 100 applications still under review.

“Finding reasonable accommodations for such public positions and job classifications has proven to be very difficult,” Loftis wrote in an email. “To date, no practical accommodation that meets the guidelines set by the state has been found and the proposed reallocation options have been refused. So it’s still a very fluid situation that affects many WSP employees.

According to Loftis, the 22 medical exemptions requested so far by WSP employees have been granted. Accommodations for six of those workers were approved, while three were refused, he wrote, “and 13 are still being reviewed and discussed with affected employees.”

According to Loftis, the agency’s decision not to grant housing – which was first reported by conservative KTTH talk show host Jason Rantz – was based on state pandemic guidelines. At work.

Other agencies, such as the Department of Enterprise Services, which oversees the Capitol campus, have yet to determine whether there will be other work for exempt employees, according to agency spokeswoman Linda Kent. .

“For approved requests, we have not yet been able to determine whether accommodations can be made to them,” wrote Kent, whose agency has seen about 10% of its 724 employees request an exemption. “Once a person is approved for an exemption, the agency goes through a process of specific assessment of the circumstances of the employee’s position.”

“In some cases, it may be determined that there is no suitable accommodation and that the employee could not continue working,” added Kent, whose agency also provides government services such as contracting, printing and risk management.

Washington has seen a record number of COVID-19 cases, and associated hospitalizations that have increased since July have started to level off, albeit at still dangerous levels, state health officials said last week. .

As of September 6, just under half of the 60,976 workers subject to the warrant had been verified as vaccinated, state data showed.

The actual figure may be higher as workers continue to be audited. But state data shows big differences between different state agencies.

Almost three quarters of the 2,500 employees of the Ministry of Health are vaccinated. Over 90% of Inslee’s 60 employees have been vaccinated.

At the same time, just under half of the 9,850 employees at the Department of Social Services and Health – one of Washington state’s largest agencies – were found to be vaccinated.

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

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

“But to be clear, we want our friends and employees to get vaccinated not only to save jobs but also to save lives,” he added. “Beating COVID will take a whole-of-society effort and we’re all in the same boat. ”

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