SEATTLE – Gov. Jay Inslee’s Deployment of Broad COVID-19 Vaccination Mandate Catches Fire from Major Union of State Employees, Leaves Questions Unanswered, Including Whether Workers Fired for No -compliance can collect unemployment benefits.
Inslee last week ordered state employees and healthcare workers to get vaccinated by Oct. 18, or face dismissal. On Wednesday, it expanded the requirement to include K-12 and higher education employees.
Imposing one of the toughest and broadest mandates in the country, Inslee said the state will negotiate the demands in good faith with unions representing affected state employees.
But the 45,000-member Washington State Federation of Employees (WFSE) accuses the Inslee administration of breaking that commitment – and of failing to provide the necessary details on how the tenure will affect the state workforce.
“To put it bluntly, I feel like we threw a plane through the air before determining if there is a pilot on board,” said Mike Yesramski, President of WFSE. He said state negotiators rejected all of the union’s proposals in a bargaining session this week and failed to shed light on key issues regarding the deployment.
While Yesramski declined to list the union’s specific demands, he said concerns include protection for those in need of legitimate religious and medical exemptions and back-up plans for staffing if a large number of employees resigned or were made redundant.
“They don’t have answers. No plan, ”Yesramski said, noting that some state agencies are already facing staff shortages. The WFSE sent an alert to its members on Wednesday urging them to contact Inslee’s office and demand that its administration “negotiate in good faith.”
Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee challenged the union’s account.
“To say that we don’t have a plan is a misrepresentation of the situation. Agencies are working as quickly as possible to verify that employees are fully immunized. Meanwhile, we are putting in place guidelines and processes for agencies to work with employees who are considering soliciting medical and religious accommodation requests, ”Lee said in an emailed statement.
“During this week’s conversations, the State has considered and carefully considered a number of proposals made by WFSE. While we have not been able to reach agreement on the union’s proposals, we look forward to continued dialogue, ”added Lee.
Yesramski said WFSE members had a wide range of views on immunization policies, but stressed that the union was “on the side of public health and public safety.” He said public employees deserve to be considered to work to maintain government services amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, the full impact of Inslee’s orders remains murky, with legal experts warning that the intricacies of the unemployment law could lead to backlogs at state agencies as workers sacked due to tenure seek benefits unemployment.
“I think we’re going to see a second wave of people asking for unemployment help, either because they were made redundant or because they quit as a result of the [vaccine] mandate, ”said Jason Rittereiser, lawyer and COVID-19 labor regulation expert at HKM Employment Attorneys in Seattle. “And how it’s going to play out, I think, is a very open question at the moment.”
Unemployment claims filed by workers who challenge the vaccine’s mandate will be decided on a case-by-case basis, Clare DeLong, spokesperson for the state’s Department of Employment Security (ESD) said Thursday.
But unless the workers concerned can demonstrate that employers failed to follow guidelines on issues such as offering religious exemptions or giving employees enough time to get vaccinated, DeLong added, Employees who “separate” on the term “should not assume that they” are going to collect UI.
At least one key legislator in a Democratic state has opposed the idea of denying benefits to workers who refuse vaccination as an occupational requirement.
State Senator Karen Keizer, D-Des Moines, who chairs the Senate Committee on Labor, Trade and Tribal Affairs, said she believes workers sacked for refusing the vaccine should be entitled to benefits . “I think the unions will ask for the same,” she added.
Assuming Inslee doesn’t back down in the face of resistance from public sector unions, which are usually closely linked to the governor, the issue of benefits will likely take some time to resolve, experts said.
Federal law gives employers considerable leeway to enforce behavior in the workplace – and a recent notice from the US Department of Justice allows employers to require vaccines approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration, as did COVID vaccines, said Anne Paxton, policy director for the Seattle and Spokane-based Unemployment Bill, which represents failed claimants and sues ESD for late payments.
However, how the ESD or the courts would treat workers who had requested exemptions for religious reasons or by employees who claim to have “a moral objection to what is happening in the workplace,” Paxton said, is less clear.
None of these issues would be resolved anytime soon. ESD staff, who have often struggled under the wave of pandemic-related claims over the past 17 months, may need more time to review contested unemployment claims involving tenure-related separations.
Workers whose applications were denied by ESD could appeal to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), which also faces a backlog of applications linked to the pandemic. As of Aug. 16, there were 33,077 open calls to the OAH, according to the agency’s website. The average contested request took 27 days to go through ESD appeals review and an additional 140 days to be heard by the HAO.
Once the OAH rules on an appeal, that decision can also be appealed to a state court, Rittereiser said.
“It is no exaggeration to say that the response to these [vaccine-related legal] the questions won’t be final for a year or more, ”said Rittereiser.