OLYMPIA — Pink slips started going out Monday as the deadline arrived for tens of thousands of workers to comply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Monroe School District let go of “less than 10” employees who did not provide proof of vaccination or seek an exemption. Five school employees, including a teacher and three paraeducators, got discharged in Everett where 98.7% of teachers and 100% of bus drivers had complied.
Local Providence hospitals were approaching 99% compliance Monday afternoon. Remaining employees “will be placed on leave and we are working with each individual to help them come into compliance,” hospital spokesperson Casey Calamusa said. Operations aren’t expected to be “significantly affected.”
Meanwhile, at Washington State Ferries, a couple hundred employees had until midnight to do what they need to do to avoid losing their jobs, a spokesman said. Ferry officials already slashed service on major routes, including Mukilteo-Clinton and Edmonds-Kingston, due to staffing shortages linked in part to workers unwilling to get the jab.
Tumult and terminations came as a Thurston County Superior Court judge rejected a last-ditch effort Monday morning to block the mandate from going into force, for roughly 800,000 workers statewide.
Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy denied a request for a preliminary injunction sought by hundreds of state workers, who argued the requirement exceeded the governor’s emergency powers.
They also contended it violated the constitutional rights of those who obtained an exemption due to their religious beliefs and that the penalty of being fired is “arbitrary and capricious,” especially for employees who can work from home, or those with antibodies from a previous COVID-19 infection.
Murphy said the governor did, in fact, have the legal authority to act, and that the plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail on the merits of the case. Her decision means the requirement will be in effect starting Monday.
“It is not surprising at all that people in Washington do not agree with the governor’s policy actions,” she said in a ruling delivered from the bench minutes after arguments ended. “It is also not surprising that other legislators and policy makers and other Washington residents think that no response or a different response is appropriate. Those questions are not before the court.”
Murphy’s ruling leaves the directive in place as the legal battle continues.
Last week, a federal judge rejected a similar request for an injunction in a case brought by some of the same workers in the state lawsuit.
Following the ruling, state Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, renewed his criticism of the mandate. Wagoner’s district includes parts of northeast Snohomish County.
“He is the only governor in the country requiring the vaccine as a condition of employment,” he said in a statement. “These individuals are now in fear of losing their jobs and their livelihoods and that is simply wrong. Plain and simple, this is coercion and blackmail.”
In a joint statement, Republican leaders of the state House and Senate said Inslee “underestimates the potential impact of his actions.”
“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,” said Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, and House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm. “The governor’s obvious disdain for those who are choosing to lose their jobs rather than compromise their right to make their own medical decisions is unhelpful. Yesterday, even unvaccinated health-care workers were heroes. Today, they become villains in the governor’s narrative.”
Inslee issued the vaccine mandate for state employees and health care workers on Aug. 9 and expanded it to include employees of schools and colleges the following week. The directive covers roughly 61,000 state agency employees, 400,000 health care workers, 155,000 in public and private schools, 118,000 in childcare and early learning, and 90,000 in higher education.
Soon after he issued his order, other statewide office-holders, including the attorney general, insurance commissioner and public lands commissioner, enacted similar directives for their offices. The Supreme Court did too.
On Sept. 10, more than 100 workers, including state troopers, ferry workers and educators, sued in Walla Walla County to block Inslee. That lawsuit got moved to Thurston County.
In Monday’s hearing, attorney Nathan Arnold, representing the workers, argued the governor overstepped his authority and should have delegated the crafting of a mandate to the Legislature. He said the mandate targets people with religious beliefs. And in an act of “religious gerrymandering,” he said, state agency leaders were instructed to issue religious exemptions but not accommodations, thus “favoring the secular over the religious.”
He hammered the state’s refusal to find ways of accommodating their workers who received religious and medical exemptions — even when school districts and local governments have been able to do so for their teachers and firefighters.
“My clients are not just going to go away at midnight tonight. We will have the same number of unvaccinated people,” he said. “We will just have less nurses and less firefighters. That does not help the public interest.”
Zach Pekelis Jones,representing the governor, said courts have upheld vaccination requirements to protect public health. This mandate is “a critical, necessary step” to ending a pandemic that has taken lives of more than 8,200 people in the state, he said.
He also noted there is no requirement to be vaccinated. People have a choice and some people will choose to not get vaccinated and lose their job, he said.
“That is tragic and deeply unfortunate,” he said.
A far greater tragedy would be to allow unvaccinated people who work closely with others in congregate settings — like prisons and long-term care facilities — “to endanger the public whom they’re supposed to serve,” he said. “It is avoiding that tragedy that compelled the governor to issue that proclamation.”
Out of over 61,000 state workers, 89.5% had been vaccinated or had completed the process of seeking an exemption or accommodation as of Oct. 7, according to a report from the state Office of Financial Management. The rate rises to 91.9% once those with accommodations are removed from the total.
At a news conference last week, Inslee predicted higher vaccination numbers by Monday’s deadline. The original directive implied workers could lose their jobs immediately. But agreements negotiated with unions create other paths — from unpaid leave to retirement — to avoid firing.
He forecast that “sky-high vaccination rates” would mean no “massive disruptions in state services.”
One area of concern is prisons. Correctional officers are among those participating in the state and federal lawsuits.
On Friday, Secretary of Corrections Cheryl Strange said 91% of the agency’s employees had turned in vaccination cards and another 3% were getting accommodated through some form of leave, such as paid family leave or military leave. At the Monroe Correctional Complex, 88.4% of its 1,111 employees were vaccinated by Oct. 7.
As of Friday, she said as many as 502 workers faced termination unless they came into compliance. Those employees got separation letters, the start of the termination process, but those letters can be rescinded if employees acted by the deadline. Strange expressed confidence there would not be problems Monday.
Herald reporter Claudia Yaw contributed to this report.