Seattle City Light is bracing for the possibility of a sickout Tuesday by some workers reportedly disgruntled over the requirement for municipal employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to city officials.
The agency “has been made aware of an orchestrated action for essential personnel to call out sick on Tuesday, September 7, 2021, to result in a work stoppage,” according to an email Seattle City Light executive Michelle Vargo sent to employees.
Vargo’s message describes the potential sickout as a violation of the existing collective bargaining agreement between IBEW Local 77 and the city.
“All individuals who participate will be recommended for discipline, up to and including termination,” wrote Vargas.
The city became aware of the possible action after hearing about it from multiple sources, according to Kelsey Nyland, spokesperson for Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.
At the moment, city officials believe the potential action “is not being driven or supported by union leadership, and the City has been in touch with union representatives regarding this issue,” Nyland wrote in an email.
“SCL learned that some line crew chiefs who are members of IBEW Local 77 are considering an orchestrated action to call out sick on Tuesday,” Nyland wrote. “SCL has heard that this potential action is in response to the vaccination requirement for all City of Seattle employees that will take effect October 18.”
Calls and emails to IBEW Local 77 officials seeking comment were not returned.
The employees who may be involved are in the High Voltage Line Group, according to Nyland, which does work on high-voltage electrical distribution and transmission lines.
SCL is a public utility that delivers electricity to more than 460,000 business and residential properties in the city of Seattle and a handful of other communities in the region. Its service area includes about 940,000 people, according to the SLC website.
SCL has contingency plans in place to maintain electrical services to customers and complete critical infrastructure work, according to Nyland and Vargo.
“Going back to the beginning of the pandemic, we have a continuous operations procedure and plan that we fall back on,” Vargo said in an interview. “We’ve probably spent more time recently talking about what that looks like … to make sure we can at a minimum respond to outages and then critical maintenance and infrastructure projects.”
The city continues to bargain in good faith with IBEW Local 77 and other unions over impacts of the vaccination requirement, such as the process for evaluating requests for exemptions from the requirement, according to Nyland.
The potential sickout comes as pockets of government employees seethe over emergency orders requiring them to get vaccinated or lose their jobs. At least 1,000 local, county and state government workers rallied at the Capitol late last month to protest the mandates.
The three vaccines authorized in the United States have been tested and found to be safe and effective in keeping people from being hospitalized or killed by the virus.
Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer vaccine. For people hesitant because of the new technology in that one or the Moderna shots, there’s the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine made from a more traditional technique.
Since February, Washingtonians 12 years and older who weren’t fully vaccinated made up nearly 94% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, as well as nearly 95% of hospitalizations and 93% of deaths, according to state health officials.
Still, anger over vaccine mandates has officials worried about the threat of a possible exodus of workers when the mandates kick in for Seattle, King County and state government workers on Oct. 18.
State officials are worried that sectors — like the Washington State Patrol and the ferries system — could be hurt if workers quit or retire early.
Some of that concern is present in Seattle, too.
A statement last week by the Seattle firefighters and paramedics of IAFF Local 27 said the union “strongly encourages” that workers get the vaccine.
But, “There are a variety of strongly held beliefs in our workforce regarding the vaccination mandates,” according to the statement, and any loss of workers over the mandates could hurt.
“Our highly skilled and experienced Seattle Fire Fighters and Paramedics cannot be easily replaced,” said union president Kenny Stuart in the statement. “Our department is already understaffed and the unexpected departure of even a small percentage of our veteran first responders would have an impact on public safety in Seattle.”