OLYMPIA – Washington government agencies are granting hundreds of religious and medical exemptions for state employees who do not wish to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
So far, however, agencies like the Washington State Patrol have only provided a handful of accommodations that would allow vaccination-exempt workers to keep their jobs by working in a position or schedule that differentiates from potential infection protects.
These conflicting data points underscore the tension surrounding Governor Jay Inslee’s order that state and school employees and thousands of health workers be vaccinated or lose their jobs by October 18.
At least 8% of mandated government employees try to avoid vaccination. If these employees leave their jobs during the mandate, it could affect government services, from the ferry systems to the maintenance program.
Washington’s state authorities are now sifting through requests for exemption and creating contingency plans in the event that many workers quit or retire early.
These agencies have created their own religious and medical exemption application forms based on the guidelines of the Inslee administration.
Some agencies religious exemption forms are as simple as a few yes-or-no questions asking if the employee has a genuine religious belief that should keep them from getting vaccinated.
Other agencies go a little deeper and ask workers to explain their religious beliefs and explain why an employee thinks they should be exempted from their syringe.
Speakers declined to disclose what types of religious beliefs or denominations were granted exemptions. Some said information is not counted, while others said that divulging this and other information would harm their efforts.
In the end, it doesn’t matter who gets a leave of absence: the real question is whether any of these people get a place to stay to continue working.
So far, few precautions have been taken to keep unvaccinated workers in the workplace.
“You don’t want to get too caught up in people’s religious beliefs because what are you going to do with the information?” Said Liz Tippett, a professor in the University of Oregon School of Law. “Will you decide your essay fails if you don’t like the essay?”
âMost of the work in the housing process should look like it can be appropriately housed,â she added. “And not like this in-depth study of the nature and depth of their religious beliefs.”
As of September 6, state agencies had received requests for at least 3,891 religious exemptions and 892 medical exemptions, according to state data released Tuesday. Of these, 737 religious requests were granted – but only seven workers were made arrangements.
49 medical exemptions have now been granted, with single-digit accommodation being provided so far.
Sean Pierce, an official with the Department of Transportation, said the agency had denied his request for religious exemption.
“They just said that they didn’t think I was basically religious enough,” said Pierce, who described himself as a Christian with no particular denomination.
Pierce, who oversees two mechanics for the Colville, Stevens County division, said he heard from colleagues that their applications were approved.
“I was joking that I had to be a pagan or something because I didn’t get the religious,” he said. These colleagues told Pierce that their applications for housing were denied even though their religious exemptions were granted.
The Washington State Patrol has yet to find practical accommodation for workers who have been granted religious exemptions, according to agency spokesman Chris Loftis. According to the state, the patrol has received at least 327 requests for religious exemptions.
That agency has approved each of those applications it has reviewed so far, according to Loftis, with around 100 applications still pending review.
“It has proven very difficult to find adequate accommodation for such publicly available positions and job classifications,” Loftis wrote in an email. âSo far, no viable housing that meets state-set guidelines has been found and the redistribution options offered have been turned down. So this is still a very fluid situation that affects many WSP employees. “
All of the 22 medical exemptions so far requested by WSP employees have been granted, according to Loftis. Housing has been approved for six of these workers, while three have been refused, he wrote, “and 13 are still under review and discussion with affected workers”.
The agency’s decision not to grant housing – first reported by the conservative KTTH talk show host Jason Rantz – was based on government guidelines for pandemics in the workplace, according to Loftis.
Other agencies, such as the Department of Enterprise Services, which oversees the Capitol campus, have not yet considered whether there will be other work for exempt employees, according to agency spokeswoman Linda Kent.
“For approved requests – we haven’t gotten to the point where we can process whether adjustments can be made,” wrote Kent, whose agency has requested an exemption for about 10% of its 724 employees. “As soon as a person has been granted an exemption, the agency goes through a process in which the circumstances of the employee’s position are specifically assessed.”
“In some cases it can be determined that there is no suitable accommodation and the employee cannot continue to work,” added Kent, whose agency also provides government services such as contracting, printing and risk management.
Washington has seen record numbers of COVID-19 cases and related hospital admissions, which have increased since July, have started to stabilize, albeit at still dangerous levels, state health officials said last week.
According to the state, almost half of the 60,976 employees subject to the mandate had been verified as vaccinated by 6 September.
The actual number may be higher as employees continue to be screened. But the government data shows big differences between different government agencies.
Almost three quarters of the Ministry of Health’s 2,500 employees are vaccinated. More than 90% of Inslee’s 60 employees have had their syringes.
At the same time, it was proven that almost half of the 9,850 employees of the Department of Social and Health Services – one of the largest state agencies in Washington – have been vaccinated.
Meanwhile, 47% of the 2,220 Washington State Patrol workers have been confirmed vaccinated. Four members of the patrol are currently being hospitalized for COVID-19, according to Loftis.
The patrol “will not question or doubt the sincerity of these beliefs and will respect the final decisions” made by those requesting an exemption, Loftis wrote.
“But to be clear – we want our friends and co-workers to be vaccinated, not just to save jobs, but to save lives,” he added. “The fight against COVID will require an effort by society as a whole and we are all involved together.”