SEATTLE — Gov. Jay Inslee opened a new front in the battle against the deadly coronavirus Monday, ordering state employees and private health care workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by mid-October — or they could lose their jobs.
Under the mandate, roughly 60,000 workers of the 24 state agencies under Inslee’s control — such as the departments of Corrections, Transportation, and Social and Health Services — must show proof of vaccination by Oct. 18 as a condition of employment. Failure to do so could result in dismissal.
The edict also applies to an estimated 400,000 employees of privately run providers of long-term care, such as nursing homes, adult family homes and assisted living facilities, as well as volunteers and others who find themselves on-site of those congregate care settings.
Public and private employers will need to verify each person’s vaccination status. Exemptions for religious or medical reasons will be available but not automatic, Inslee said. There will not be exemptions for personal or philosophical reasons.
And the order covers workers of private contractors operating on state property. It applies to small vendors and major construction outfits. Failure to comply could result in firms losing contracts, Inslee said at a news conference.
“We are in the middle of an explosive threat to our freedoms because of this disease,” Inslee said, referring to a surge in cases in every county, mostly due to the highly transmissible delta variant. He made the announcement at Kaiser Permanente in Seattle. The giant health care provider said last week it is making the vaccine mandatory for all employees and physicians.
New infections and hospitalizations are at levels similar to those early in the pandemic, when Inslee shuttered the economy and much of public life to blunt the disease’s spread.
“We do not want to do that again,” Inslee said of the restrictions. Vaccines are a safe, successful tool to prevent illness and avoid that course of action, he said.
“We know these things work,” he said. “We know it is a key to ending the pandemic.”
State workers who refuse to be vaccinated will be subject to “non-disciplinary dismissal” for failing to meet the qualifications of the job. If a person who is vaccinated refuses to provide proof, they too can be fired, according to the governor’s office.
The mandate does not apply to public schools and colleges. Nor does it cover members of boards and commissions, employees in the legislative and judicial branches, or staff in state agencies run by separately elected officials. Inslee encouraged legislative and elected officials to take similar action.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson is requiring employees, volunteers and visitors to agency facilities to be vaccinated when staff begin returning to offices in September. For workers, the requirement is a “qualification of fitness for duty” for continued employment, according to a memo sent to staff last month.
Those with a health condition or “sincerely held religious belief that prevents them from getting vaccinated” may request an accommodation, according to the memo.
On Monday, state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said he will require his 243 employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 18, in line with the governor’s executive order.
“I am pleased that 84% of the people at my agency have self-reported being fully vaccinated,” Kreidler said in a statement. “Vaccines are the only way we get back to life as we used to know it, and I am happy to do everything in my power to support that effort.”
Democratic legislative leaders applauded Inslee’s action and vowed to consider “additional COVID safety steps within the legislative branch” before the next session.
“State employees and health care providers serve the public. Being vaccinated with a safe, effective vaccine is a simple extension of that commitment,” House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, and Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said in a joint statement.
Their Republican counterparts said the governor went too far and “should show humility, listen to those who have concerns about the vaccine, and look to provide other options – including incentives.”
“Vaccinations can save lives and we have strongly encouraged people to get them. We have been vaccinated ourselves,” House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, and Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said in a joint statement.
“But getting the vaccine is a personal health-care choice and should not be mandated by any level of government. Threatening to terminate someone’s job if they don’t comply with this requirement is heavy-handed and wrong.”
One union, representing state corrections workers, which is opposed to employer mandates, insisted the state must bargain the impact of the rules before they are implemented. There must be clear guidelines for exemptions, leaders said in a news release.
“Throughout this pandemic Teamsters have been placing their health and safety on the line to fuel our economy and keep our communities safe. The decision to mandate vaccines is a serious one and raises serious concerns.” said John Scearcy, Teamsters 117 secretary-treasurer. The union represents 17,000 public and private sector workers, including state corrections officers.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many of the targeted state workers will need to get vaccinated.
In Washington, roughly 70% of people 12 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, state health officials said. It follows that roughly 70% of the 60,000 state workers covered by the order are likely vaccinated — though no one knows for certain, Inslee admitted. However, he said, in some agencies the percentage is under 50%.
“When we vaccinate state employees we protect the citizens we serve,” Inslee said. “We’re protecting all of Washington when we do this.”
Inslee’s spokeswoman said the governor has the authority to issue the blanket requirement under his emergency powers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Washington’s mandate appears to be more stringent than those in other states with vaccination requirements for state or health care workers, according to a review of policies by The Associated Press.
In California, New York and Virginia, state workers must either be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing starting next month. Vaccination is mandated for California’s health care workers, without a testing option, starting Sept. 30. In Oregon, health care workers will be required to be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing starting Sept. 30.
The Biden administration is also acting. President Joe Biden has said federal workers will be required to sign forms attesting they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus or else comply with new rules on mandatory masking, weekly testing, distancing and more. The Pentagon will require all military personnel to get the COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 15.
Mandates are coming to local governments, too.
King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan joined Inslee to say they’ll impose similar rules on their county and city employees.
Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers isn’t ready to issue such a directive.
“The executive is always watching case rates very closely and will be parsing the details from today’s announcement to see what the county might do,” Kent Patton, Somers’s chief spokesman, said in an email. “We would definitely make an announcement if we plan to move in that direction.”
Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin is also watching the situation.
“While I am not considering a vaccination mandate at this time, it is my sincere hope that all city employees and residents will make the responsible decision and get vaccinated,” she said in an email.
And vaccine mandates are proliferating in the health care industry.
Besides Kaiser Permanente, hospitals operated by the University of Washington, Swedish and Virginia Mason Franciscan Health are also moving to make sure all their employees are vaccinated.
Providence, which operates several hospitals, including one in Everett, is requiring all employees to get vaccinated and show proof of vaccination by Sept. 30. Those unable to be vaccinated will face new protocols, such as enhanced COVID testing.
“Right now, vaccines are the only way to bring an end to the pandemic,” Susan Mullaney, president of Kaiser Permanente, said at the news conference.
Jerry Cornfield: firstname.lastname@example.org; @dospueblos