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Largest state employee union strikes tentative deal over Inslee’s vaccine mandate

 File photo of Gov. Jay Inslee during press conference Aug. 18 announcing vaccine mandate for people who work in K-12.
Courtesy of Office of Gov. Jay Inslee
File photo of Gov. Jay Inslee during press conference Aug. 18 announcing vaccine mandate for people who work in K-12.

The largest state employee union in Washington has reached a tentative agreement over the implementation of Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The deal, which was announced early Saturday morning, follows a series of bargaining sessions this week between representatives of the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) and the Inslee administration.

Previously, WFSE had sued Inslee alleging his administration was negotiating in bad faith and seeking an injunction to temporarily halt implementation of the mandate.

Under the agreement, which requires ratification, union members will still be required to be fully vaccinated by October 18, and no COVID-19 testing alternative will be offered.

However, the union won a series of concessions and special considerations.

The deal allows employees to use work time to get the vaccine, instead of doing so on their own time or taking leave.

In addition, employees will be granted one additional personal leave day to use in 2022 as a “vaccine incentive.”

Additionally, workers who don’t want to get vaccinated and are eligible to retire can do so by December 31 without facing termination. Instead, they can use accrued leave time or take unpaid leave until their retirement date.

The agreement also addresses what the union calls a “fair and consistent process” for workers who are seeking religious or medical exemptions from the vaccine mandate.

For instance, if the state is still reviewing an exemption request on October 18, the deadline to be fully vaccinated, the worker will not lose their job or any pay so long as they request the exemption by September 13. Workers whose exemption requests are ultimately denied will be allowed to take up to 45 days of paid or unpaid leave to get fully vaccinated.

Workers who fail to get fully vaccinated by October 18 will also have the right to take leave for up to 30 days to finish their vaccine cycle, rather than face termination. That concession expires on November 17.

“This agreement is a victory for both public health and due process,” WFSE said in a statement. “It puts in place a fair, equitable and consistent process for members seeking a legitimate exemption to the mandate.”

A spokesperson for Governor Inslee noted that the agreement affirms the requirement that workers not covered by an exemption be fully vaccinated by October 18.

"The goal throughout the implementation is to achieve increased vaccinations within our workforce. We are confident that through our negotiation efforts and partnership going forward, we have clarified issues to help employees get on the path towards vaccination and ultimately provide for safer workplaces," said Mike Faulk, Gov. Inslee's deputy communications director.

WFSE represents approximately 46,000 state employees. Members will vote on whether to ratify the tentative agreement next week. The deal struck Saturday does not apply to WFSE-represented employees at agencies run by separately elected state officials, such as the Office of Attorney General and the Department of Natural Resources.

Even as WFSE announced its tentative deal, another state employee union, Teamsters 117, whose members include Department of Corrections (DOC) workers, still had not reached an agreement with the state.

In a bargaining update Friday, the union said the Inslee administration was unwavering that “you must be vaccinated to maintain a position at DOC.”

“We continue to be at odds over the State’s ability to accommodate employees after being approved for medical and religious exemptions,” the update said.

The union is warning of “severe staffing shortages” at the state’s 12 prisons if significant numbers of employees refuse to get vaccinated. The union said DOC had shared contingency staffing plans, but that questions remained about whether with large staffing deficits the prisons could be run in a “safe and humane” manner.

Inslee, a Democrat, issued the vaccine mandate on August 9 amid rising COVID-19 cases fueled by the contagious delta variant. It applied to cabinet agency employees, on-site contractors and volunteers. Inslee also mandated that private health care and long-term care workers get vaccinated. He subsequently expanded the requirement to include employees working in school settings, from pre-school to higher education.

Previously, Inslee has called the vaccine safe and effective and said getting vaccinated “is a public good.”

Under Inslee’s mandate, any employee who doesn’t qualify for an exemption and doesn’t get vaccinated faces termination from their job, making it one of the most stringent in the nation.

As of August 30, 73 percent of Washingtonians age 12 and up had received at least one vaccine dose, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.

This story has been updated.

Copyright 2021 Northwest News Network

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."