One union OKs deal with state on governor’s vaccine mandate

Talks continue with other unions amid concern there might be a worker exodus ahead of the Oct. 18 deadline.

OLYMPIA — Washington’s largest union of public service workers has ratified an agreement with the state that provides employees an incentive to comply with the vaccine mandate imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee — and paths to avoid getting fired if they don’t.

The deal provides workers an additional paid day off next year, options for retiring without risk of losing their job and protections against the loss of pay for employees seeking a medical or religious exemption. And workers who are partially vaccinated against COVID-19 by the Oct. 18 deadline set by Inslee will get extra time to comply with the mandate, though it might mean taking time off without pay.

“Our union was able to achieve what we set out for — a victory for public health and due process,” Mike Yestramski, a psychiatric social worker and president of the 47,000-member Washington Federation of State Employees, said in a statement Friday. The ratification vote concluded Thursday night.

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. Several unions representing sectors of the state workforce objected and demanded to negotiate the manner in which the mandate would be carried out.

One of those, the Washington Federation of State Employees, filed an unfair labor practice claim in Thurston County Superior Court on Aug. 26.

Within 24 hours of filing the lawsuit, the state responded with a written proposal adopting several WFSE priorities, according to the union. A tentative agreement was reached Sept. 3. Following the vote, the union will withdraw its lawsuit.

“No one has worked harder to combat the COVID-19 pandemic than Washington’s state workers,” said Yestramski. “We understand that vaccination, masking and social distancing are necessary for ending this public health crisis. Now, we have an agreement that incentivizes vaccination and helps ensure a fair process for workers requesting a medical or religious exemption.”

In the meantime, tentative agreements have been reached with a coalition of unions representing state ferry workers, the Washington Association of Wildlife Professionals and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199, an Inslee spokesman said Friday.

Talks are slated this weekend between the Inslee administration and Teamsters 117, whose members include corrections officers.

Union president Michelle Woodrow said in an email that the state is taking the “hardline position” that even employees granted a medical or religious exemption will likely be out of a job.

“The rigidity of the State’s deadline has created a barrier to getting more people vaccinated,” she said. “Instead of working with employees to get them vaccinated, the State wants to force them into a leave without pay status or threaten them with termination while they navigate through those extenuating circumstances.

“We recognize the severity of the public health crisis and have strongly encouraged all Teamsters to get vaccinated. At the same time, we are worried that many of our DOC members will choose to leave State service by the Governor’s deadline,” she said. “If that occurs, we do not believe the State will be able to provide a safe and humane correctional system, which will negatively impact our members and the incarcerated individuals living in prisons across Washington state.”

State agencies are preparing contingency plans should an exodus of employees occur. On Thursday, Inslee told reporters he did not expect one.

”We believe as time goes on, more and more public servants will get the vaccine,” he said.

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

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