Federal vax rules apply to half of Snohomish County workers

The Labor Department hasn’t issued guidance yet, but here’s what we know so far.

EVERETT — A forthcoming federal vaccine and testing mandate will apply to roughly half of Snohomish County’s workforce. Hundreds of the county’s employers, in both the public and private sectors, must soon require their employees get fully vaccinated or show a negative COVID-19 test every week.

More than 140,000 workers in the county, and 374 employers, are expected to fall under the new requirements for employers. Some of those, including state workers and school employees, already face deadlines to be vaccinated under mandates issued by Gov. Jay Inslee.

“We’ve been contacted by a lot of our members,” said Jon Holden, president of a union that represents machinists at Boeing. “It’s a polarizing issue.”

Last week, President Joe Biden directed the Labor Department to develop an emergency rule for employers with more than 100 workers. The proposed federal rule will affect far more people than mandates issued at the state or county levels.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a federal regulatory agency under the Labor Department, is developing the official rule. Until OSHA sets the emergency temporary standard, many of the details about it are unclear. The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, for example, believes the rule will apply to public sector employees in local governments, but won’t know until OSHA develops the rule.

A spokesperson for Boeing, Snohomish County’s largest employer, said Wednesday the company is assessing the mandate and didn’t have any information about how the company will implement new requirements. Boeing — which employs nearly 30,000 people locally — doesn’t currently have a policy regarding the vaccine.

Holden is the president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 751. Holden said the majority of the union’s members are opposed to a mandate, even if they’re already fully vaccinated. The general concern is it will put people in a position to lose their employment, he said.

However, Holden said the weekly testing option could “offer a pathway for us to keep folks employed” and that the union will advocate for “a good process and enough tests.”

The county’s largest retailers and grocery stores — Fred Meyer, QFC, Walmart, Safeway, Albertsons — also haven’t required any of their Snohomish County workers to obtain the vaccine.

“We continue to strongly encourage everyone to protect themselves and each other by wearing a mask and getting the vaccine,” QFC spokesperson Tiffany Sanders wrote.

Sanders wrote that the company, which is owned by Kroger, “looks forward to reviewing guidance” from the Labor Department about what Biden’s plan means for employers and employees. Walmart and Albertsons did not respond to requests for comment.

Most likely, the mandate will also apply to public sector employers in Washington, including county and city governments with more than 100 employees. A spokesperson for the state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) said it is “highly unlikely” public sector employers will be exempt.

In some states, federal OSHA is responsible for enforcing the mandate it issues. However, the rules are slightly different in Washington. The state has its own plan and is responsible for worker safety issues, rather than the federal government.

State plans are required to cover public employees and must be “at least as effective” as federal protection for private sector employees, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Once OSHA releases a rule, L&I will issue its own.

“The state rules have to be at least or more stringent than OSHA’s rules,” L&I spokesperson Dina Lorraine said. “… We just have to see the rule first.”

It has been unclear to the Snohomish County Executive’s Office whether or not the federal mandate will apply to county government workers. On Friday, however, spokesperson Kent Patton wrote it’s likely Snohomish County will be required to implement a federal or state mandate.

“With over 70% of our workforce vaccinated, we have already made significant progress,” Patton wrote. “We look forward to additional information from our federal and state partners.”

Countywide, 74% of Snohomish County residents over 18 are already fully vaccinated, according to The New York Times’ vaccine tracker.

In the meantime, the Snohomish County prosecutor and local courts have issued vaccine mandates and testing requirements for their own employees. Other county department heads told The Daily Herald that they aren’t issuing a mandate.

In August, Gov. Jay Inslee’s Office announced vaccine mandates for various workers. The mandates don’t give all workers the option of weekly COVID testing, instead of the vaccine. However, the mandates allow for exemptions based on medical issues or religious beliefs. The mandates apply to all state employees and school employees, as well as health care and long-term care workers. The state’s deadline for workers to be fully vaccinated or provide proof of exemption is Oct. 18.

Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, the county’s second-largest employer, already had vaccination and enhanced COVID-19 testing requirements in place for all of its employees.

Sam Templeton, a spokesperson for the Everett Clinic, said the clinic is working to be in full compliance with the state mandate.

“As most of our staff fall under the state mandate for health care workers, we anticipate no issues with the federal mandate,” Templeton wrote.

Katie Hayes: katie.hayes@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @misskatiehayes.

Katie Hayes is a Report for America corps member and writes about issues that affect the working class for The Daily Herald.

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