With about 4,800 state employees in 24 agencies requesting vaccine exemptions, which is 8% of all state employees, and with the list growing, oversight of the requests is being questioned.
Under state and federal law, employers can require employees to be vaccinated as long as they allow exemptions for health and religious reasons. President Joe Biden has ordered federal workers and federal contractors along with private companies with more than 100 employees to be vaccinated, or tested weekly, which will include another 80 million workers. Each person requesting an exemption will be interviewed and asked to fill out a questionnaire. Included in the questions are: “Has the requester ever received a vaccine or medicine from a health care provider as an adult?”
The same process will be followed with private sector employers. Only medical disability and religious exemptions will be considered. Political and philosophical disagreement will not be considered. Medical requests for exemptions must be accompanied by a doctor’s statement, and religious requests must meet a test of “sincerely held belief” by practice or observance — and is already proving to be more nuanced and harder for the employers to determine as valid.
However, even if the request passes this test, there must be a “reasonable accommodation” that would not put undue hardship on employers. If requesters can’t be accommodated without disrupting the essential duties of their job, they may still face release from employment, according to the governor’s office, as the person seeking the accommodation is not entitled to disrupt the work place. Not all requests can be honored, and according to reports, a health disability has been rated above a religious belief by the courts. The state superintendent’s office says that school districts will have complete authority over determinations on religious accommodations.
Even with safeguards built in, resistance to the orders has sparked protests in Olympia among state workers, the Washington State Patrol and other local government workers, some of whom have filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jay Inslee. The state patrol has 2,300 employees with half being officers and the other half being civilians, and has received 373 religious exemption requests. But no accommodations have been found. They have received 22 medical exemption requests, with 80 requests still under consideration.
The Department 0f Social and Health Services (DSHS) is one of the largest state agencies with about 9,850 employees and about half are vaccinated. Recently, a “sick out” by Seattle City Light employees and state ferry workers did not materialize.
Oregon state employees are also reacting in a similar fashion as hundreds gathered in Salem, the state capital, to protest Gov. Kate Brown’s vaccine and mask mandates. The protesters identified themselves as teachers, health care workers and emergency service workers. Political motivation is part of the equation and the rally was organized by Oregonians for Medical Freedom, a political action committee that works to protect vaccine exemptions.
But it seems political motivation may be more obvious in Washington. The Tacoma News Tribune did an investigation of a group called “One Washington,” which is a nonprofit formed last March that is putting on workshops in churches in Washington and Oregon where attendees are offered tips and coaching on how to evade the vaccine mandates. Attendees said crowds are mostly unmasked and seated close together. One of the co-presidents is Thomas Jonez, who is a volunteer state patrol chaplain, and according to the TNT report, is a former owner of a closed vocational school that allegedly left hundreds of students with worthless diplomas.
Republican State Rep . Jesse Young has been one of the speakers and the Pierce County Republican Party has encouraged followers to sign up. Republican State Senators Chris Gildon and Jim McCune, State Rep. Cyndy Jacobsen, and Pierce County Councilmember Amy Cruver have also attended . Watch for Young to run for higher office next year.
Jonez said the workshops include step by step instructions for requesting a religious exemption, including how to fill out the employee questionnaire. With thousands seeking exemptions, it isn’t surprising to see politics and questionable training surface as a way to attract political support. Mandates for vaccinations and masks have become Democratic, and opposition to vaccines and masks have become Republican.
The most controversial non-vaccinated public figure isn’t a politician, but is Washington State University head football coach Nick Rolovich, who is also the highest paid state employee. So far, Rolovich has refused to answer questions on his opposition to the vaccine, and his two bosses — WSU President Kirk Schulz and athletic director Pat Chun — are pro-vaccine. Rolovich has received some criticism from alumni regarding his need to be a role model for the young men he is coaching. But neither boss can comment on Rolovich or anyone else because the vaccine is considered medical and confidential. We will have to see what happens to Rolovich in October.
With only 53% of U.S. residents fully vaccinated, but another 75-80 million people not vaccinated, more pressure is expected from President Biden.
Biden originally sought volunteer cooperation, but given the political dynamics, that was not achieved. It is clear his patience is getting thin. The Department of Transportation will double the fine for those who refuse to wear masks on airlines or cause disturbances on planes.
Biden has called out those who favor political gain over safety when he said, referring to Southern governors, that if those governors won’t help us beat the pandemic, he’ll use his power as president to get them out of the way.
In what may become our future, the Los Angeles Board of Education recently voted to require students ages 12 and older to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. It is the second biggest school district in the country, and other districts are expected to follow as California is frequently a testing ground for new ideas. With the political dynamics in play, we may hear a lot more about exemptions and questionable requests.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.