David Peterson (Jacqueline Allison / The Daily Herald)

Unvaccinated firefighters put on unpaid leave sue to recoup back pay

Eight Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue firefighters contend unpaid leave was not legal. Six of them are back at work

MONROE — Eight Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue firefighters placed on unpaid leave when they refused to comply with a COVID vaccine mandate are suing for back pay, accrued vacation days and other benefits lost while off the job.

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, the workers, who each had a religious exemption to the mandate, contend the leave of absence was not a “lawful” accommodation” and they are entitled to compensation for “financial losses.”

Workers also allege that the accommodation policy for unvaccinated employees — negotiated by the district and firefighter’s union — discriminated against them because of their religious beliefs.

“The Plaintiffs can establish a prima facie case of discrimination: They have a bona fide religious belief which conflicted with the employer’s policy, they placed their employer on notice of the conflict, the employer took adverse action against them,” reads the employment discrimination suit filed Nov. 22.

Five plaintiffs — David Peterson, Beau Watson, Jay Stickney, Evan Merritt, and Kevin Gleason — are back on the job after fire commissioners in April agreed to retool how to accommodate the return to work of unvaccinated workers. Another, Riley Korf, is returning soon too.

Norm Alan Peterson II and Ryan Stupey, the remaining plaintiffs, are still on unpaid leave.

Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue officials had not been served with the lawsuit as of Monday.

In a statement, they said: “All our actions in addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including our decisions in addressing the Washington State vaccination mandate for healthcare workers have been made with the safety of the community and our employees as our highest priority,” reads a statement issued by the district.

This is the latest twist in a drama seeded in Gov. Jay Inslee’s August 2021 order requiring providers of health care services — including firefighters and paramedics — be vaccinated against the coronavirus. The deadline to comply was Oct. 18, 2021.

After that date, in order to keep working, an employee covered by the mandate had to have received the vaccine or obtain a religious or medical exemption and reasonable accommodation from their employer. Such accommodations could include masking, testing regularly or working remotely. Across the state, thousands of state employees quit or were terminated for not complying.

The Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue and International Association of Firefighters Local 2781 negotiated a memorandum of understanding stating that unvaccinated employees who did not receive accommodations would be given an unpaid leave of absence for up to one year. The clock would begin once the worker used up all their paid leave.

Though all eight plaintiffs had obtained a religious exemption, the district determined firefighters could not do their jobs safely and effectively by wearing masks, testing regularly and maintaining social distance on the job. As many as 13 firefighters were put on leave.

In April, Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue’s Board of Commissioners voted to allow workers to return to the job starting June 1.

At the time, Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien said it was always the district’s intent to bring employees back.

“We saw a change in the landscape of COVID-19, and the district sees we are able to safely accommodate firefighters on a case-by-case basis to have them come back to duty,” O’Brien said. “It’s a different time than it was last winter or last fall.”

Snohomish Regional Fire and Rescue provides firefighting and emergency medical services to 180,655 residents in Lake Stevens, Monroe, Maltby, Clearview, and unincorporated southeast Snohomish County.

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

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