Washington’s state employee union is asking a court this week to delay implementation of Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, arguing it should not move forward until its full impacts have been adequately negotiated.
The Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) filed an unfair labor practices complaint last week in Thurston County Superior Court, alleging the Inslee administration has failed to bargain in good faith over the vaccine requirement.
Reacting to the spike in COVID-19 infections because of the highly transmissible delta variant, Inslee has ordered state employees, as well as health care, K-12 and higher-education workers, to prove by Oct. 18 that they are fully vaccinated, or to obtain a valid religious or medical exemption. Those who refuse face firing.
The WFSE lawsuit says that the looming deadline is actually much closer than it seems, with people needing to receive a first dose of one authorized vaccine as early as Sept 6.
The 45,000-member union is seeking a preliminary injunction to suspend the mandate deadline, with a hearing scheduled for Friday before Thurston County Superior Court Judge Erik Price.
The WFSE complaint further asks the court to permanently bar Inslee’s mandate proclamation as written, and rule that it is an “unconstitutional impairment” to the union’s collective-bargaining agreement with the state.
Unless the court grants the delay, workers will be “irreparably harmed,” the union complaint contends. “For example, because of the uncertainty surrounding the exemptions and accommodations and the shortness of time, employees pressed to decide to get vaccinated may be required to either subordinate matters of conscience or have a serious adverse reaction to the vaccine because of a medical disability,” it states.
In an email to union members Friday night, WFSE President Mike Yestramski said the legal challenge was prompted by the Inslee administration’s rejection of all the union’s proposals on how the mandate will be managed.
“This lawsuit is about respecting our union’s right to bargain and ensuring that people in need of accommodations are treated fairly,” he wrote.
Mike Faulk, an Inslee spokesperson, on Sunday disputed the union’s characterization of talks with the administration. “We don’t agree. We think we are negotiating in good faith,” he said, adding that the state would be filing a legal response “that will show the extent of our disagreement.”
The impasse could be resolved at the bargaining table instead of the courtroom. WFSE and state negotiators are scheduled to meet again Wednesday, union spokesperson Justin Lee said.
The union has not made its specific demands public, but Yestramski has cited concerns including protections for people in need of legitimate religious and medical exemptions, whether the state will assist in vaccinating people, and contingency plans for agencies if large numbers of employees quit or get fired.
The WFSE lawsuit says it has made multiple proposals “to modify or mitigate the impacts” of Inslee’s proclamation.
In his message to union members, Yestramski stressed that the WFSE lawsuit is not about taking an anti-vaccine stance.
“From day one, we’ve encouraged members to talk to their physicians about the COVID-19 vaccination. Public health officials and experts agree: Vaccines, masking and social distancing are the only way to beat this pandemic and return to normal,” he said.