OLYMPIA — More than two-thirds of Washington workers subject to Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate have gotten their shots, according to state data.
Meanwhile, state agencies have granted nearly 800 accommodations to state workers whose religious or medical exemptions from the mandate were approved. The accommodations allow workers to avoid getting fired for not being vaccinated, and allow them to work in a role that does not put others at potential risk.
The figures released Monday by the Office of Financial Management come a week before a crucial deadline for Inslee’s mandate that state workers get their shots or lose their jobs.
By Oct. 4, most workers must show that they have gotten all their shots in order to be considered fully vaccinated by Oct. 18.
The vaccination numbers are about 20% higher than earlier this month, which Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee called encouraging.
“As you saw from the data, there has been a strong uptick in the number of vaccinated employees in the last two weeks,” Lee wrote in an email. “We find that encouraging.
“Agencies and their HR departments have been working hard to communicate with their employees,” Lee added. “We believe that the numbers will continue to go up, and know that as the deadline approaches more and more employees will make the decision to protect their health and the health of those around them.”
Inslee in a news conference last week said he was holding firm to the Oct. 18 deadline and, “This vaccine is readily available and people … still have a chance to get it, and we heartily encourage it.”
The vaccination push has come as the state endures a fifth wave of COVID-19 that has stressed hospitals and delayed unrelated medical procedures. While confirmed cases and hospitalizations have recently begun to drop, hospitals remain stressed and about 30 Washingtonians are dying from the virus daily.
As of Sept. 20, a little over 68% of the nearly 63,000 workers subject to the mandate have been verified as vaccinated, according to the OFM data. That’s up from the 49% who had verified as of Sept. 6.
The vaccination numbers range from nearly 85% at the Department of Health, to 64% at the Washington State Patrol and 52% at the Department of Agriculture.
The numbers fluctuate even within large state agencies. For example, 49% of workers at the Department of Correction’s Monroe Correctional Complex are vaccinated. At the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, however, that figure is 39%.
State workers have protested Inslee’s mandates, with several thousand seeking religious or medical exemptions to avoid the shots.
But an exemption alone is not enough to save a worker’s job. Those whose exemptions are approved must still be granted an accommodation that allows them to keep working in a role acceptable to both the agency and the worker.
Monday’s data shows that at least some look set to keep their jobs — though that too so far varies widely by state agency.
The Department of Children, Youth and Families — which oversees the state’s foster care system — has granted 87 accommodations for people who sought religious exemptions.
The Employment Security Department has approved accommodations for 128 who applied for religious and medical exemptions.
Likewise, the Department of Labor & Industries has granted accommodations for 163 workers.
The Washington State Patrol, meanwhile, has granted just five accommodations to keep unvaccinated workers on the job. The agency — which saw a trooper die over the weekend from the virus — has said few accommodations are available since many of their staff work out in the community.
Meanwhile, a hearing was held Monday in a lawsuit by hundreds of workers opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, with a judge in Walla Walla granting the Inslee administration’s request to move the case to Thurston County.
Nathan Arnold, an attorney for the objecting employees, had opposed the move, arguing that Inslee’s mandate impacts are impacting workers in Walla Walla, including Department of Corrections guards at the Washington State Penitentiary. “Your honor, it is not where the bow is drawn, but where the arrow strikes,” he said.
But Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge M. Scott Wolfram sided with Inslee attorney Zach Pekelis Jones, who cited precedent that lawsuits challenging such proclamations by the governor belong in Thurston County, the seat of state government in Olympia.
About 600 state and local government employees have joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs, up from roughly 90 when it was filed earlier this month. They include more than 100 Washington State Patrol troopers and more than 70 Department of Corrections employees, according to the amended complaint.
Several legal challenges to Inslee’s COVID-19 mandates have been brought by conservative and business groups, but none has proven successful so far.
Seattle Times staff reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this report.