County prosecutor, judges impose vaccine mandate on workers

Employees must comply by Nov. 1 in superior and district courts and Nov. 15 in the prosecutor’s office.

Adam Cornell

Adam Cornell

EVERETT — Employees of Snohomish County’s court system and prosecuting attorney’s office have been told to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by November or they could lose their jobs.

County Prosecutor Adam Cornell and the presiding judges of the superior and district courts each issued a vaccine mandate this month. They are the county’s first elected officials to take the step in response to the continuing pandemic.

The mandates — like ones imposed on state workers and school employees by Gov. Jay Inslee — set deadlines to comply and bar workers from continuing in their current position absent proof of vaccination or receipt of an exemption for a medical reason or “sincerely held” religious belief.

Cornell said he spoke with Superior Court Judge Bruce Weiss and District Court Judge Doug Fair before acting.

“We’re all in the same business of administering justice in the county,” Cornell said. “Employees of the court and of the prosecuting attorney’s office have a unique vulnerability to this virus in our work, and that unique vulnerability is one of the reasons I am imposing the mandate.”

Cornell’s order sets a Nov. 15 deadline for roughly 200 people to comply. The policy, announced last week, states that those “with a disability or sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observation that prevents them from getting vaccinated against COVID-19 may request an accommodation.”

“I will make the final decision,” Cornell said, adding he will be bargaining aspects of the policy’s implementation with unions which represent most of the workers.

Separate orders issued for employees of the superior and district courts set Nov. 1 as the deadline for them to become fully vaccinated or secure an exemption for medical or a “sincerely held” religious belief. Otherwise, they are prohibited “from being employed by or performing work for” either of the courts after that date.

“My whole objective has been to keep people as safe as possible and keep court operations going as best as possible,” Weiss said.

Talks are under way with employee unions on how the order will be carried out. Aspects such as the process for obtaining exemptions and the potential for a testing option in lieu of vaccination could be part of the negotiations, Weiss said.

Jurors are specifically excluded in the court mandates. Weiss said he was concerned legal challenges could be brought based on the makeup of a jury if jurors are required to be vaccinated.

Weiss modeled his mandate on the one issued Aug. 18 for employees of the state Supreme Court by Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez. In it, Gonzalez “strongly encouraged” other courts to take similar steps.

“That was something I took into consideration,” Weiss said.

There’s been some initial reaction. Though no one’s quit, not everyone in the prosecuting attorney’s office is on board, Cornell said.

“Some have expressed significant disagreement with my decision,” he said, noting at least one employee told him that they would be contemplating working elsewhere due to the mandate. “It was a difficult decision and ultimately I decided that given our unique nature of work that we do it was the best for my office.”

In the meantime, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers is not ready to require county employees get vaccinated.

Kent Patton, Somers’ spokesman, said they are watching development of President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for federal workers and large private employers. Even though it does not specifically mention counties, it could turn out to provide a model for implementation locally, he said.

For example, the Biden approach calls for a testing alternative. It does not say what types of tests will be allowed, and that could make a difference in the county designing an effective policy for its workforce, Patton said.

“We are waiting for details as to whether this model will work,” he said.

County Treasurer Brian Sullivan said he is in touch with the county executive. Sullivan, a former county councilman, said it would be best if the other departments moved forward together.

“I can’t say that we will have a mandate, but I can’t commit that we won’t,” he said. “I would venture to guess in the next week or so we’d have an answer.”

No vaccine requirement is coming to the Assessor’s Office for now — unless the president orders it.

“We don’t currently have a vaccine mandate. We are not considering one at this time,” Chief Deputy Assessor Laura Washabaugh said Monday.

Meanwhile, the fight over Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate for state employees and health care workers has moved into the legal system.

On Friday, Washington State Patrol troopers, prison correctional officers, Washington State Ferries workers and other public sector employees filed a lawsuit in Walla Walla contending the governor’s dictate is unconstitutional and should be tossed out. Eight Snohomish County residents, including four troopers, three state ferry employees and one worker with Valley Regional Fire, are among the more than 90 plaintiffs.

“These requirements are legal, and we look forward to responding in court, where to date no challenge to the governor’s use of his emergency powers has been successful,” Mike Faulk, Inslee’s press secretary, said in an email. “His use of this authority is appropriate given the extraordinary circumstances of this pandemic. It is not unreasonable to ask public servants to protect the public from being infected with COVID.”

Inslee issued the vaccine mandate for state employees, contractors and health care workers on Aug. 9 and expanded it to include employees of schools, colleges and other educational settings the following week. It offers medical and religious exemptions but does not include an option for regular testing in lieu of the vaccine.

Unions representing several sectors of the state workforce objected. Some have reached deals on how the mandate will be carried out, while others are still negotiating.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com; 360-352-8623 @dospueblos

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