Inslee to ditch vax mandate for state workers as health emergency ends

The policy was central to the state’s pandemic response but was also blamed for labor shortages at key agencies.

By: - May 10, 2023 10:39 am

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

When the national public health emergency for the coronavirus ends Thursday, so too will the requirement for state employees to be vaccinated against COVID as a condition of employment.

“It was time to do it,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday after touring a new child care center for children of state workers. “The numbers are down to a level where this makes sense. We did this in collaboration with the federal government who’s taking the same step. So we’re all in sync.”

Inslee issued the directive in August 2021 amid an explosive rise in new cases of the potentially deadly virus. The policy sparked pushback from some quarters and led to over 2,000 employees, who failed to comply, losing or leaving their jobs.

But the mandate was also a lynchpin of the state’s pandemic response which included a mask requirement, business shutdowns and school closures.

 “We know these things work,” Inslee said at the time the vaccine mandate was adopted. “We know it is a key to ending the pandemic.”

On Wednesday, at the child care center, he called the vaccine mandate “the capstone of our achievement here where we saved 10s of 1000s of lives in the state of Washington.”

A short time later, Inslee thanked a large crowd of state workers for their role in helping save those lives and give Washington one of the lowest COVID fatality rates in the nation.

“I hope you feel pride in what you’re doing,” he said at an annual event recognizing public service employees. “I thank you profoundly.”

Inslee’s mandate took effect in November 2021. By the end of that year, 2,135 workers had quit or were terminated from their jobs, according to the Office of Financial Management. The total included 416 from the Transportation Department, 163 from Washington State Patrol and 326 from the Department of Corrections.

Inslee’s order covered roughly 60,000 workers in the 24 state agencies under the governor’s control — such as the departments of Corrections, Transportation, and Social and Health Services.

It also applied to employees of privately run, long-term care providers, such as nursing homes, adult family homes and assisted living facilities, as well as volunteers and others who find themselves on-site in those congregate care settings.

Workers could seek an accommodation, and exemptions for religious or medical reasons were possible but not automatic.

As of Dec. 31, 2021, 57,561 state employees, or about 92.6%, had provided proof of vaccination against the coronavirus and 1,899 had received an accommodation.

The employment mandate proved to be one of Inslee’s most controversial actions in response to the pandemic which, according to state Department of Health data, had claimed the lives of 16,106 residents as of April 17.

At the time, House and Senate Republican leaders publicly encouraged getting vaccinated. But they called it “heavy-handed and wrong” to threaten to fire someone if they didn’t get the shots.

The directive also caused division in the ranks of several public sector unions and tension with the pro-labor Inslee administration.

The Washington Federation of State Employees, which represents roughly 40,000 state workers, resisted a proposal to mandate COVID boosters for all state employees. What resulted through negotiations is a $1,000 payment for their members who get a booster.

The proposed state budget funds those incentive payments to all eligible state employees who choose to provide proof of their up-to-date vaccination status, Inslee said.

The Office of Financial Management will now need to negotiate changes to collective bargaining agreements and amend civil service rules containing COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

Reporter Laurel Demkovich contributed to this report.

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Jerry Cornfield
Jerry Cornfield

Jerry Cornfield joined the Standard after 20 years covering Olympia statehouse news for The Everett Herald. Earlier in his career, he worked for daily and weekly papers in Santa Barbara, California.