City of Seattle staffing strained due to vaccine mandate

Seattle’s vaccine mandate has exacerbated staffing shortages in major departments.

By Sarah Grace Taylor / The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Seattle’s vaccine mandate has left hundreds of exempted unvaccinated city employees on leave for over two weeks, exacerbating staffing shortages in major departments and drawing criticism from impacted employees.

Mayor Jenny Durkan required all city employees working on-site to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18. While well over 90% of employees got vaccinated and continued to work normally, more than 500 others received or applied for religious or medical exemption and are on leave, hoping for accommodations to keep their jobs.

As of Monday, the departments with the most employees on leave were the Seattle Police Department with 100; Seattle City Light with 82, Seattle Public Utilities with 70, and the Seattle Fire Department with 55.

For departments like SFD, where 5% of its staff is on leave from the mandate, the order is applying new pressure to an already strained staff.

“It’s important to understand that when we walked into this mandate after Oct. 18, we weren’t 100% staffed, so that plays into the challenges,” Chief Harold Scoggins said last week, noting the department had about 75 vacancies before the mandate.

Including those vacancies, and the roughly 29 people scheduled off on a given day and the 10-30 firefighters on leave at any given time due to injuries or other circumstances, the department aims to staff 220 firefighters in a given day.

“So all of these things come into the mix every single day before we even walk into the mandate,” Scoggins said. “And then … if we just look over the last month I think we have over 30 events that we have staffed around the city, and that’s everything from the [University of Washington] Husky games to the Seahawks, to the end of the Mariners season, to the Kraken, to concerts.”

So far, Scoggins says, the department has managed to meet its obligations by his staff working voluntary overtime.

According to SFD, the department’s staff worked an average of more than 11,000 hours of overtime each week over a four-week period from Sept. 28-Oct. 25. The number increased each of the four weeks, starting at 10,433 and climbing to 11,601.

But Scoggins says the amount of hours remaining staff members are having to work to compensate for the shortage is not sustainable.

“It’s been an exhausting 20 months for our folks because, if you remember, we never stopped coming in. We never worked from home,” Scoggins said.

And even still, the department has had as many as 10 units out of service on any given day in those four weeks, and is preparing to address any drop-off in voluntary overtime or further understaffing.

Similarly, SPD has switched to an emergency staffing model to accommodate the 100 employees — 93 of whom are sworn officers — on leave in the exemption process.

“While we work to reach 100% vaccination compliance within the Seattle Police Department, there may be some impacts to our service levels, especially given our loss in staffing over the past two years,” SPD said in a written statement after the mandate went into effect.

According to a spokesperson for the department, SPD is currently under a Stage 3 emergency mobilization in response to the number of officers on leave, which can result in “a full deployment of all on-duty sworn personnel, including Investigations and other non-uniformed section personnel,” according to the SPD manual.

“To that end, the department has developed a series of plans to provide the best level of service, including augmenting patrol staffing with officers from the Community Response Group first, before detectives and other non-patrol sworn employees are asked to return to the streets,” the statement continued.

The current state of staffing drew criticism from the Seattle Police Officers Guild last week, as the union filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission, accusing the city of not allowing proper bargaining in the mandate process and requesting covered employees be allowed to return to “status quo.”

Durkan’s office declined to address SPOG’s complaint multiple times, but doubled down on the importance of vaccinations.

“The mayor said very clearly before that she thinks vaccinations are important and you can’t work safely without vaccination,” Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, said in a phone interview Friday.

Durkan signed an emergency order late Friday that provides hiring bonuses of up to $25,000 for laterally hired and $10,000 for newly hired officers and staff to the SPD and the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC).

But some of those employees facing leave or termination see the move by Durkan as hypocritical.

Marina Shinderuk, who has worked in CSCC for over 13 years and received a religious exemption from the mandate, said Friday she was told she would not be accommodated to work remotely.

Shinderuk says the mayor’s hiring bonuses are a “slap in the face” for those who have lost or may lose their jobs over the vaccination mandate.

“The city citing ‘undue hardship’ as the reason for denying accommodations for those who were granted exemptions and then offering the incentives for new hires while we’re still waiting to be fired is a travesty,” Shinderuk said Wednesday.

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