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Will the passes get plowed? Impact of vaccine mandate firings on state services not yet clear

I-5 Crash 2.PNG
WSDOT
The Washington State Patrol and Department of Transportation closed I-5 near Tukwila and re-routed traffic off the freeway after a semi crash on Wednesday, October 20, 2021. Combined, the two agencies lost more than 550 workers as a result of Gov. Jay Inslee's COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Roughly nine in 10 employees of the state of Washington are now vaccinated against COVID-19. Gov. Jay Inslee considers that a huge success and a win for public health. But his vaccine mandate has also led to the departure of hundreds of state employees. Now there are questions about the implications for some state services.

Nearly 1,900 Washington state workers — or about three percent of the workforce — have resigned, retired or been fired because of Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which took effect on Monday. That number may go even higher in the weeks ahead as another nearly 2,900 employees remain in a state of limbo, according to state officials.

The goal of the mandate, which applied to healthcare and education workers as well, was to increase the percentage of Washingtonians who are vaccinated against COVID-19. It was also intended to reduce the disruptive, and potentially deadly, spread of the virus in workplaces, including state agencies and state institutions. Ultimately, about 90 percent of the state’s roughly 60,000 employees complied with the requirement to prove they are vaccinated.

“I thank those who took that step,” Inslee said in a statement. “They showed leadership and trusted science to protect themselves and our state.”

But the loss of hundreds of state employees who chose retirement, resignation or termination over getting the vaccine also has the potential to be disruptive.

In advance of the October 18 deadline to get vaccinated, state agencies put in place various contingency plans.

But it will likely take weeks to know if the departures will have a lasting effect on state services — like ferries, prisons and child welfare.

One of the first major tests may come this winter when two of Washington’s most visible frontline agencies are pressed into service to respond to crashes, clear snowy passes and meet other transportation needs.

The Washington State Patrol and the Department of Transportation combined shed more than 550 employees due to the vaccine mandate. That included 67 state troopers who are usually the first to respond to incidents on the freeway or spin outs on mountain passes.

“We’ve lost everything from a cadet with just a few months of experience to a captain with decades of experience,” said Chris Loftis, a State Patrol spokesperson.

The departures, which happened essentially overnight, nearly doubled the patrol’s already existing trooper shortage, Loftis said. In the short-term, the agency plans to move personnel around the state to backfill if needed. Longer term, the patrol is in the process of recruiting and hiring for three trooper academy classes with the goal of hiring 100 to 150 new troopers through June of 2023.

While Loftis predicted the public generally won’t notice a difference out on the roads because of the reductions, he said there could be times when a trooper won’t respond to a non-injury collision with minor damage, especially in more rural parts of the state.

The patrol’s dispatch centers also face a staffing shortage. As part of the attrition, the agency lost 14 communication officers whose job includes fielding 9-1-1 calls for assistance and dispatching troopers to where they’re needed. Even before the vaccine mandate, Loftis said, that division had a number of openings. Now, with the recent departures, the communication officer vacancy rate has risen to 26 percent.

“On the positive side, we have the technology that allows a [communications center] in a different part of the state to assist another center experiencing personnel shortages, so they have some technical dexterity,” Loftis said in an email this week.

Elissa Brentano is one of the communication officers who lost her job. She worked in Vancouver routing troopers to calls across a wide swath of southwest Washington, from Chehalis to Goldendale. Brentano obtained a religious exemption from the vaccine mandate, but was told she couldn’t be accommodated to keep doing her job unvaccinated. Instead of getting the shots, she chose to leave the agency. But she said she’s worried about her former colleagues, especially with winter approaching.

“When we’re fully staffed and we get bad weather, it’s hard to even keep up and that’s with two to three, sometimes four people [taking calls]. So doing it with one or possibly two is going to make it really difficult,” Brentano said.

In a series of press releases and statements this week, minority Republicans in the Washington Legislature criticized Inslee and warned that the firings would compromise public safety and state services.

“The loss of all of these officers, as well as the dispatchers who were fired, will be felt by those motorists who need help on our highways,” said state Sen. Curtis King, the ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee. “If and when a motorist is stuck on the side of a freeway or involved in an accident and there is no trooper around to help them, the blame should be placed on the governor.”

Inslee has repeatedly dismissed concerns about significant disruptions.

“I am confident that state services, health care and educational instruction and services will continue with minimal disruption,” Inslee said in a statement Thursday.

In winter, one of the biggest challenges for both the State Patrol and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is keeping the state’s many mountain passes cleared and open for travel.

WSDOT lost 402 employees due to the mandate, including 13 of 17 employees in its Goldendale office. That could have implications for clearing Satus Pass on Highway 97 between Goldendale and Toppenish. Snowplows are also sometimes needed to clear Highway 14, a popular trucking route, which runs on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge.

“This could have a very negative impact on drivers and freight hauling throughout Washington this winter, and it could hurt our economy at a time where there are already major supply-chain concerns,” said Sen. King, whose district includes Satus Pass and the Columbia River Gorge.

The state’s beleaguered ferry system also took a hit with 132 staff departures because of a combination of retirements and firings, according to WSDOT. As of last Saturday, Washington ferries are operating on a reduced schedule.

“In terms of contingency planning, we know at a high level that these departures affect our general staffing, Washington State Ferries, maintenance, winter operations, the staff that maintain the equipment we use for maintenance operations and our construction projects,” wrote Kris Rietmann Abrudan, WSDOT’s communications director. She added that it will take time to know the full impact to operations.

Throughout state government this week, executive level staff, managers, frontline employees and their unions were trying to gauge the potential fallout of the reduction in staff. The governor’s office said it was not immediately able to provide a “real-time” status report on how agencies are responding and if there are particular areas of concern.

“We continue to monitor all aspects of this and are encouraged,” said Mike Faulk, an Inslee spokesperson, on Thursday. “We hope to have more information as the dust settles and agencies report any changes. We will share what we can.”

A spot check of higher-profile state agencies, including those that care for vulnerable individuals, revealed that most were operating normally, but there were instances of contingency plans being activated.

For instance, at the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), which lost more than 300 employees, officials said the state’s psychiatric hospitals and Special Commitment Center for sex offenders on McNeil Island were reporting no disruptions. However, the Developmental Disabilities Administration was relying on managers to help cover shifts at the state’s four residential habilitation centers for people with developmental disabilities. Headquarters staff were also on standby to help.

“They have been experiencing workforce challenges prior to the pandemic and have plans in place to manage staffing issues caused by the mandate,” said Adolfo Capestany, DSHS’s communications director.

At Washington’s four state-run veterans homes, which lost 63 staff, new admissions have been paused. However, the agency said on Wednesday that it doesn’t appear it will have to implement more extreme contingency measures, like temporarily transferring some residents to community nursing homes.

Similarly, the Department of Corrections (DOC), where 350 staff left the agency, said all 12 state prisons had adequate staffing with no major disruptions. However, Secretary of Corrections Cheryl Strange said the agency was asking for volunteers to backfill at different facilities.

Additionally, Strange said, outdoor recreation was suspended on Wednesday at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center on the Olympic Peninsula where staff have been battling an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. In the last 30 days, 104 new cases of the virus have been confirmed at that facility.

On Tuesday, the day after the vaccine mandate took effect, Inslee issued a proclamation temporarily halting the transfer of prisoners from county jails to state prisons beginning October 25. However, the governor and DOC said the pause was primarily aimed at managing the spread of COVID-19 in the prisons, not mitigating for the loss of staff.

“It's just a chance to take a breath and catch up," said Strange, who expressed optimism that the vaccine mandate would significantly reduce the presence of COVID-19 in state prisons.

While state employee unions were generally supportive of the governor’s vaccine mandate, the way it was implemented put labor and management at odds in some cases.

“I understand that we are in the middle of a public health crisis. I believe in vaccinations, I am vaccinated,” said Michelle Woodrow, president and executive director of Teamsters 117, the union that represents many frontline prison staff.

But Woodrow said she was frustrated by how few prison workers who got religious or medical exemptions were ultimately accommodated so they could continue working unvaccinated. The Inslee administration drew a hard line on accommodations, essentially telling front line staff that they couldn’t be accommodated in their current positions.

In an interview, Woodrow said she’s also worried about the staff left behind, noting that prisons were already short-staffed and that employees were having to work a lot of overtime.

“I think [DOC is] minimizing their staffing deficit,” Woodrow said.

The Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE), the largest state employee union, also raised concerns about staffing levels and the way the vaccine mandate was implemented.

“To have additional vacancies created only exacerbates that staffing concern,” said Leanne Kunze, WFSE’s executive director.

But Kunze also said she was concerned about the resistance on the part of some of her members to get vaccinated.

“So many of them have been exposed to so much misinformation. And sadly, the propaganda that’s out there about vaccines is deadly,” Kunze said.

That resistance was on fierce display in recent weeks as state employees rallied repeatedly at the Capitol in opposition to the vaccine mandate. It was also symbolized by the refusal of former Washington State University football coach Nick Rolovich to get vaccinated. Rolovich, who had sought a religious exemption, was fired along with several of his assistant coaches on Monday.

Rolovich, who was the state’s highest paid employee, plans to file a lawsuit over his termination. Separately, dozens of state troopers, correctional officers and other state employees are plaintiffs in lawsuits previously filed in state and federal court challenging Inslee’s mandate.