OLYMPIA — As deadlines draw near for tens of thousands of state workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19, some Washington agencies have started sending separation notices to employees who have not shown they are vaccinated.
Meanwhile, other large agencies — like the Washington State Patrol, Department of Corrections, and the Department of Social and Health Services — are scrambling to determine who hasn’t yet gotten their shots.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency order requires roughly 63,000 state workers to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or lose their jobs.
Inslee has said workers must get their final shot by Oct. 4 — which is Monday — to be fully vaccinated. The mandate — which also applies to school employees and hundreds of thousands of private health care workers — is one of the strictest in the nation. There’s no opt-out option to instead get regularly tested.
To meet the timeline, most unvaccinated workers would have to get the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the next couple days. Other workers — like those who have had their requests for exemptions or accommodations denied by the state — may have more time to get Moderna or Pfizer shots.
For a range of reasons, it likely will take weeks to know whether a large number of workers leave over the vaccine mandate, or if just a small fraction have given up their jobs to avoid the shots.
The Department of Licensing sent 66 separation letters Friday to workers who have neither submitted proof of vaccination nor applied for an exemption from the shots, according to spokesperson Nathan Olson.
The Department of Labor & Industries, meanwhile, “sent about 140 letters today, and a few more will go out on Monday,” wrote spokesperson Matt Ross in an email.
A potential exodus of workers unwilling to get the jab could hinder basic government services. The biggest questions involve a handful of key, large agencies.
The state Department of Corrections previously sent roughly 1,000 early notices to workers seeking that they verify their vaccination status, according to spokesperson Jacque Coe.
That’s a sizable chunk of the agency’s approximately 8,600 employees who operate the state’s 12 prisons.
Most workers receiving those notices are union-represented, “so there is an investigative process which occurs before a formal notice of separation can be sent,” wrote Coe in an email. That process would begin Monday.
Asked about the potential to lose those workers, Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee wrote in an email that the “warning notices are just that, warnings.”
“This is a snapshot in time and not what the final numbers will be,” Lee wrote, adding that DOC and other agencies have worked on contingency plans to make sure government services can continue.
“We remain hopeful that more state employees will chose to get vaccinated and remain in the workforce,” she wrote.
John Scearcy, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, which represents corrections officers, said in a statement that the union is still negotiating with the state on vaccine issues. The union is “strongly encouraging” its members to get the shot and has sponsored vaccine clinics for them and their families.
“We have not, however, reached an agreement with the State in negotiations over the Governor’s vaccine proclamation and will be heading into interest arbitration to resolve our differences,” Scearcy said in prepared remarks.
The union is aware of the investigatory notices, and he pointed out that they have “a strong contract that protects the rights of our members who are subject to investigation.”
“Until the unresolved issues on the table are decided by the arbitrator, both the State and the Union will need to adhere to the terms and conditions of our collective bargaining agreement,” he added.
Meanwhile, at the state Department of Social and Health Services, human-resources staffers are working through the weekend to process verifications and get a better picture of the situation, according to spokesperson Adolfo Capestany.
Washington’s largest agency, DSHS oversees among other things the two state psychiatric hospitals, developmental disabilities programs and economic assistance.
As of Friday afternoon, about 86.5% of the agency’s 15,725 employees had been verified as vaccinated, said Capestany. That is a noticeable increase over data released earlier in the week.
Washington State Patrol spokesperson Chris Loftis referred questions about the number of vaccinated workers to that state data released Monday. Those figures show just under 63% of the patrol’s nearly workers 2,200 as vaccinated.
The State Patrol won’t know how many separation letters it must send until after 5 p.m. Tuesday, Loftis wrote in an email.
There are a multitude of scenarios where the Oct. 18 deadline doesn’t apply.
Some employees will have extra time to get vaccinated if agencies deny their requests for exemptions to the vaccine and accommodations for those unvaccinated employees to work in roles away from the public.
Agencies could still approve more accommodations in order to keep unvaccinated workers who have gotten an exemption for religious or medical reasons.
Yet other state workers could choose to simply quit or retire early if they don’t want to get their shots.
In a wave of backlash against the mandate, state workers and others have held demonstrations to protest the order as government overreach.
Nonetheless, the number of state workers verified to be vaccinated has grown in recent weeks. As of Monday, 68% of state employees subject to the mandate have been fully vaccinated.
Only one state agency appears to be immune from the tensions and questions.
Every employee at Puget Sound Partnership had been vaccinated as of Monday.
The 51-person agency leads a regional effort to restore and protect Puget Sound.
“We’re not sending out any separation letters, since everyone has been verified as vaccinated,” said spokesperson Kevin Hyde.