OLYMPIA — For more than a year, Kim Kinney has come to work, strapped on a mask and cleaned legislative and press offices in the COVID-19 era’s often-deserted Capitol campus.
A 21-year veteran of the state Department of Enterprise Services — the agency that oversees the Capitol — Kinney often works alone, emptying trash bins, cleaning toilets, and, in a sign of the times, wiping down door handles with disinfectant wipes.
But she might not be here much longer. Kinney is one of a number of government employees frustrated with Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate for state workers and school employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18 — or lose their jobs. The order came as cases of infection began to rise, and as the spread of the more contagious delta variant resulted in a spike in hospitalizations.
Kinney, 61, recognizes the severity of the coronavirus. But she says she’s never received a vaccine as an adult, and believes in sticking with natural cures, and has taken medications on only a handful of occasions. She’s prepared to walk away from her career.
“I believe your beliefs, your convictions, your morals and your values make you who you are,” said Kinney. “When you allow somebody to make you give those up or change that, that’s a flaw within yourself.”
Nobody knows how many others like Kinney are out there.
The state has not released any figures on the percentage of its workforce that has been vaccinated — or how many employees are seeking exemptions or indicating they won’t comply. State agencies have been sent tracking forms and will start reporting such data in a couple of weeks, said Ralph Thomas, a spokesperson for the Office of Financial Management.
Still, concerns have emerged over possible disruptions in services if significant swaths of state troopers, ferry workers, social service providers and other public employees resign or get fired for refusing to get vaccinated.
Already, some agencies like the Washington State Patrol and the ferry system are short-staffed, and additional departures could hobble them further.
In an email, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said state officials are working on contingency plans if agencies lose key staff, but downplayed the notion that it will create big problems.
“There has been a lot of unsubstantiated speculation on how many people might choose to be released from employment, and we are confident those claims don’t have merit,” wrote Faulk, adding later: “We remain committed to the current vaccine deadline as a condition of employment.”
Amid the speculation is at least some real anger. At least 1,000 people appeared at the Capitol last weekend to protest the mandate by Inslee as well as those issued by county and local governments, with firefighters, ferry workers and others speaking out.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Retirement Systems (DRS) in August saw an uptick in the number of government workers — which include school employees and local and county workers subject to their own mandates — requesting pension estimates, the first step in retiring.
More than 1,860 employees requested that information last month, according to DRS. That’s up from 1,715 for August of last year and the highest number for that month for at least the past six years.
That doesn’t mean those workers will ultimately retire. And the figure also doesn’t reflect employees who might quit to work elsewhere before collecting their government pensions later in life.
If frustrated workers make good on threats to leave, the state could lose institutional experience that takes years to build.
“To get to the level I’m at with fire qualifications, it takes just as long to become a doctor,” said Mike Colombo, a supervisor who works on wildland fires for the state Department of Natural Resources.
Colombo, who says he’ll quit in the face of the mandate, has spent the summer fighting fires around the state, including the Lick Creek and Dry Gulch fires in Southeastern Washington.
“And if the commissioner of public lands and the governor have their way,” said Colombo, 45. “I’ll never fight fire in Washington state again.”
A spokesperson for Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who leads DNR, pushed back on such objections, pointing to losses of firefighting capacity due to rising COVID-19 infections.
Outbreaks have sidelined state and federal fire crews battling wildfires across the state and region, said the spokesperson, Sarah Ford. On Thursday, for example, an air tanker crew in Moses Lake tested positive, requiring the tanker to be grounded for a day until a replacement crew could be brought in.
“With the number of cases we’re seeing, it’s clear that we could lose far more firefighters to positive COVID-19 tests, illness, and the resulting quarantine process than we would lose to the vaccine mandate,” Ford said.
The three vaccines authorized in the United States have been tested and found to be safe and effective in keeping people from being hospitalized by COVID-19.
Since February, residents 12 years and older who weren’t fully vaccinated made up about 93.7% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Washington, as well as 94.5% of hospitalizations and 92.9% of deaths, state health officials have said. As of Wednesday, 64.7% of state residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated and 71.4% of residents in that age category have gotten at least one shot, according to state health officials.
One vaccine, made by Pfizer, was given full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month. For people concerned about the new technology in that one and the Moderna vaccine, there’s the one-shot Johnson & Johnson dose made from a more traditional technique.
In stories shared with The Seattle Times, government workers gave a host of reasons for why they don’t want to be vaccinated. Some, like Kinney, stress their own beliefs about medicine, while others say they have religious reasons to avoid the vaccine.
Colombo said he didn’t trust the technology in the Pfizer and Moderna shots and questioned why he should get a vaccine for a virus that doesn’t kill most people who get infected. “I haven’t taken a vaccine since I was forced to take a vaccine as a child,” he added.
Others, like state Department of Transportation employee Sean Pierce, say they are on the fence about the vaccine and were hoping to wait a little longer to see how it worked.
“I just believe it’s being forced down us, and there’s just really no time to react,” said Pierce, 53, who oversees two mechanics for the agency in Colville, Stevens County. Pierce said he hasn’t decided whether he will get it now or keep his job.
And, “Now there’s talk about booster shots,” he added. “Are we going to sign up for something the rest of our lives?”
Kinney, Colombo and Pierce all vented about how narrowly the Inslee administration crafted the religious exemption.
Exemption forms distributed to state agencies ask workers to certify they have never received another vaccine — or any medicine — from a health care provider as an adult.
Faulk, the Inslee spokesperson, wrote that it “is appropriate and lawful” for state officials to ask follow-up questions about people’s religious beliefs to make sure people aren’t lying just to avoid getting the vaccine.
“All requests for a reasonable accommodation based on a sincerely held religious belief will be given full and appropriate consideration,” Faulk wrote.
However, Faulk added that even if a person’s religious beliefs are deemed sincere, they may still be fired if an agency determines it can’t make reasonable accommodations for unvaccinated workers to perform their essential functions.
In a statement, John Scearcy, secretary-treasurer for Teamsters Local 117, which represents state corrections workers, said the Inslee administration has told the union in negotiations that “even our members who are granted an exemption will likely be out of a job.”
Scearcy called that position unacceptable and said, “We anticipate the Department of Corrections will face severe staffing shortages that will make operations of the prisons beyond the October 18 deadline extremely challenging.”
Frustration has also bubbled up to the state’s largest employees union, which late last month sued Inslee, arguing his administration failed to bargain in good faith over impacts of the vaccine requirement.
The lawsuit by the 47,000-member Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) seeks a preliminary injunction to delay the mandate. A hearing on the injunction had been scheduled for last Friday but has been rescheduled for Sept. 10.
Early Saturday morning, WFSE announced that it had reached a tentative deal with the Inslee administration. The deal won’t change the substance of the order.
But the deal, if union members vote this week to approve it, gives some wiggle room for employees to seek religious or medical exemptions.
For instance, if a worker’s exemption request is denied, the worker can use up to 45 days of paid or unpaid leave to get fully vaccinated, according to an outline of the deal. That 45-day window will also apply to workers whose exemption is approved, but where an accommodation can’t be found for them by the state to work in a role where they interact with fewer people.
Another part of the deal will allow unvaccinated employees to retire by Dec. 31, rather than lose their jobs immediately. Those workers will be able to use paid or unpaid leave until their retirement date, as long as they submit their paperwork by Oct. 18.
Planning for firings
State agencies are trying to get a handle on possible impacts of a mass employee exodus, though some expressed skepticism that will happen.
Even without further reductions, the Washington State Patrol was short 85 full-time positions as of Aug. 1, according to spokesperson Chris Loftis.
The agency lost large numbers of troopers several years ago to morale issues and pay scales that weren’t competitive with local law enforcement agencies.
While the Legislature has since increased compensation, “we’ve never caught up from that,” Loftis said in terms of staffing.
The union representing state patrol troopers promoted a protest last weekend at the state Capitol in which an array of public employees and vaccine opponents decried Inslee’s mandate.
Reports that ferry workers might call in sick en masse to protest the vaccination mandate — causing further delays in an already stressed system — have been downplayed by union leaders and ferry-system officials.
Dan Twohig, regional representative for the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, said the union is not organizing or condoning any work stoppages or slowdowns. He said the union has concluded Inslee’s vaccine mandate is legal, but is hoping for a delay in its implementation, saying the state is not prepared for the impacts on already strapped agencies.
“It’s not about the mandate. It’s about the timeline,” Twohig said.
Ian Sterling, a spokesperson for Washington State Ferries, said the agency doesn’t have any estimate on how many of its workers might depart. “It’s definitely something that we are concerned about and are trying to get a feel for,” he said. “So far it’s only been a handful that have vocalized that they will.”
The vaccination mandate is also creating headaches for state contractors — also covered by Inslee’s order — including some crucial social service providers.
Community Resources, an Olympia social services contractor that supports adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, warned in a letter last week to clients and their families that at least two of its employees intend to leave rather than get vaccinated, including its business administrator, and that the intentions of 29 other employees were unclear.
“The Governor’s mandate has added to our already challenging spring and summer,” wrote Heather Robarge, Community Resources supported living administrator. “We have seen high numbers of our employees resigning from their positions and a low number of people applying for work.”
For Kinney, the custodian on the Capitol campus, leaving her job and losing more years to build her pension could ultimately mean she will retire later in life — after a search for another job.
“I’m about to lose to everything,” she said. “My livelihood, my finances, everything.”