As thousands of state workers put in exemption requests, Spokane County residents join lawsuit against Inslee over vaccine mandate

<p><p>OLYMPIA — State employees, health care workers and educators have just over a month to become fully vaccinated, and the fight over the governor’s mandate continues. </p></p><p><p>As the Oct. 18 deadline draws closer, affected workers — including nearly 8% of state workers — have put in their exemption requests, unions continue to bargain its effects, and some workers hope to resolve the issue elsewhere: in court.</p></p><p><p>Eight Spokane County residents are among more than 80 Washington State Troopers, Department of Corrections officers, firefighters and other affected workers  suing Gov. Jay Inslee over the vaccine requirement.</p></p><p><p>The lawsuit, filed Friday in Walla Walla County Superior Court, claims Inslee exceeded his authority and violated their constitutional rights when he ordered most state employees, private health care workers and educators to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or lose their jobs unless they get an exemption. The suit asks the court to rule the mandate unconstitutional.</p></p><p><p>The Spokane County residents listed as plaintiffs on the lawsuit include State Patrol employees Katelyn Baxter, Jeremy DeLano, David Howard, Tyler Howland, Adam Roskamp and Barbara Werner, and and Spokane firefighters Nicholas Holmes and Jason Webster .</p></p><p><p>The lawsuit alleges Inslee exceeded the scope of his authority by issuing a mandate that should have been left up to the Legislature and local health districts. Additionally, it says the governor violated workers’ constitutional rights of life, liberty or property; privacy; religious freedom; and speech and assembly.</p></p><p><p>The mandate allows for religious and medical exemptions, but some workers worry they still will lose their jobs if they file for an exemption, according to the lawsuit. </p></p><p><p>Of the 2,300 Washington State Patrol employees, 373 have submitted requests for religious exemptions. Of those, 215 have already been approved for commissioned officers, and 69 have been approved for civil servants, said spokesperson Chris Loftis.</p></p><p><p>All 22 requested medical exemptions have been approved, he said. </p></p><p><p>It’s one of the highest percentages of requested exemptions in affected state agencies, according to initial exemption data released by the state on Tuesday.</p></p><p><p>According to the data, as of Sept. 6, 528 exemptions have been requested from employees at Department of Corrections facilities.</p></p><p><p>Friday’s court filing is the second lawsuit from state workers in the past month over the requirement. The Washington Federation of State Employees, the largest union representing state workers, filed a suit asking the court to extend the Oct. 18 deadline.</p></p><p><p>Within 24 hours of filing the lawsuit, Inslee’s office and the union’s team were back at the bargaining table, <a href=”https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2021/sep/10/state-employee-union-ratifies-deal-with-governor-o/” target=”_blank”>reaching a deal last week</a>. </p></p><p><p>It gives workers an extra personal day for 2022 and allows those who wish to retire before receiving a vaccine to do so. If those wishing to get an exemption are awaiting on a decision by Oct. 18, they will not lose pay until the decision is final. If they do not get the exemption, they have 45 days to become fully vaccinated.</p></p><p><p>That agreement only covers the 47,000 state workers that the union represents. Other unions, such as those representing Department of Corrections officers, are still in the bargaining process.</p></p><p><p>Inslee told reporters last week he thought the agreement reached with WFSE was a good template to use for other unions currently bargaining the vaccine’s impacts.</p></p><p><h3><strong>Thousands put in exemption requests</strong></h3></p><p><p>State agencies and unions representing their employees encouraged workers to file exemptions by Monday to give human resources departments enough time to issue decisions and accommodations. </p></p><p><p>The mandate only covers employees in agencies run by members of the  governor’s executive cabinet and does not apply to those in departments run by separately elected officials. </p></p><p><p>As of Sept. 6, nearly 8% of the state employees covered by the mandate filed either a religious or medical exemption request with their human resources department, according to initial data from the Office of the Financial Management. That rate could actually be higher as of this week.</p></p><p><p>Those exemptions include 3,891 requested religious exemptions and 892 medical exemptions.</p></p><p><p>Of the religious exemptions, 737 have been approved statewide, but only seven have received accommodations, such as a less public-facing role or social distancing. Of the medical exemptions, 49 have been approved, and two have received accommodations. </p></p><p><p>As of Sept. 6, just under 50% of employees in these agencies have been verified as fully vaccinated. Departments with the lowest rates of verified vaccinations include the Department of Children, Youth and Families, the Department of Corrections , the Employment Security Department, the state Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Transportation and the State Patrol.</p></p><p><p>For educators, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction will be keeping track of school districts’ vaccination and exemption rates. Spokesperson Katy Payne wrote in an email OSPI would not be sending out that survey to districts until after the Oct. 18 deadline.</p></p><p><p>Individual private hospitals will track their vaccinations but don’t currently have those numbers publicly available. Taya Briley, executive vice president at Washington State Hospital Association, said many hospitals across the state are currently working to get their workers vaccinated by the deadline.</p></p><p><p>“There are still a number of unvaccinated staff in rural areas in particular,” Briley said.</p></p><p><p>Hospitals are reviewing exemption requests on a case-by-case basis, Briley said. Hospitals could not just “rubber stamp” those requests once received.</p></p><p><p>“The medical requests are easier to review and verify,” Briley said.</p></p><p><p>The religious belief exemptions are trickier, and Briley said template exemption requests have been circulating online. </p></p><p><p>“What’s key to validating those is hospitals will engage in an interactive process with the person who has that belief and to discuss accommodations that could be made,” Briley said.</p></p><p><p>For state agencies, the governor’s office has <a href=”https://www.governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/Religious%20Exemption%20Form%20Template.pdf” target=”_blank”>an exemption template online</a>. It requires employees to say whether they have “a sincerely held religious belief or religious conviction” that prevents them from getting the COVID-19 vaccine. It also asks whether the employee has received vaccines in the past. </p></p><p><p>It recommends human resource departments gather follow up information, including how long the employee has had the religious beliefs and if those beliefs include objections to all vaccines.</p></p><p><p><strong style=”font-size: 1.17em;”>Deadlines for most first doses have passed</strong></p></p><p><p>As exemptions are filed and deals are struck, deadlines to get first doses continue to pass.</p></p><p><p>Monday was the last day to get the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in order to be considered fully vaccinated by the Oct. 18 deadline. The deadline to get the first dose of Moderna  passed on Sept. 6.</p></p><p><p>Those still unvaccinated could still get  the one-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which can be received as late as Oct. 4 in order to be covered under the mandate. As of last Tuesday, the state had a total of 53,031 Johnson and Johnson doses available. The state ordered an additional 38,200 doses over the weekend.</p></p><p><p>Department of Health spokesperson Shelby Anderson said the federal government has assured the state that there will not be supply concerns for vaccines, including the Johnson and Johnson shot.</p></p><p><p><em>S-R reporters Arielle Dreher and Emma Epperly contributed to this report.</em></p></p>