About 50 Spokane Fire Department employees set to be sacked next month over COVID-19 vaccine objections

Nearly 50 unvaccinated Spokane firefighters will be laid off next month if they do not receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

The city said it could not make reasonable accommodations for them under an emergency proclamation issued by Governor Jay Inslee that requires state employees and healthcare workers to be vaccinated.

According to the city, 52 of the approximately 300 fire department employees have been approved for an exemption from the vaccination mandate. Two were for medical reasons while the others sought to avoid the shots for religious reasons. Four people have withdrawn their exemption.

The city considered ways to accommodate exempt firefighters, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington, but this “presented undue hardship and too great a risk to the public and other fire department employees. Spokane “.

Tim Archer, president of Local 29 of the Spokane Firefighters Union, opposes the city’s position, which he says exceeds the requirements of the governor’s tenure. Archer is among those rejecting the vaccine on religious grounds – a choice he called personal – and expects to lose his job in October.

“It doesn’t have to be ‘you get the vaccine or you are fired’,” Archer told The Spokesman-Review. “My life has been devoted to public safety and taking care of our citizens. If I thought I was putting a person in danger, of course I wouldn’t.

Spokane firefighters are under the governor’s mandate as they are all licensed as paramedics or paramedics. About 300 Spokane Fire Department employees in total, including some in administrative roles, are subject to the requirement. Almost all exemption requests were made by licensed emergency health professionals.

There is still time for them to get vaccinated without losing their jobs thanks to a variety of options offered by the city. They can also choose to apply for another job in the city. If they are made redundant, they will be placed on a “layoff list” for three years and be eligible to join the fire department – provided they meet existing vaccine requirements.

The mandate

The city feared that accommodating around fifty vaccine exemptions for firefighters could adversely affect the quality of service of the fire service.

Several sites in the city require proof of vaccination to enter, Coddington noted. If a firefighter could not enter the facility, the service could be forced to send additional resources to the scene and possibly delay the response time.

“The likelihood that an unvaccinated employee will be on one of those shifts is pretty high,” Coddington said. “First and foremost, response time is critical.”

Archer argued that reasonable accommodations for unvaccinated firefighters were functionally in place under existing public health guidelines before the governor issued his mandate in August, which set an October 18 vaccination deadline for workers in health.

“In my station, we have eight people working there. I had to wear a mask and socialize, but no one else did. It was good, ”said Archer.

But Inslee’s proclamation opened up the city and its employees to more responsibility, the city argued.

After Inslee issued its proclamation, the union and the city negotiated its impacts, but the union was unable to reject or outright quash the mandate. They came to an agreement, but Archer described the premise of the negotiations as “we are going to run over you with a truck, and we will discuss with you how and when we are going to do it.”

Archer has repeatedly noted that people who are vaccinated are still able to spread the virus.

That’s true, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but not the full picture.

While vaccinated people are more likely to contract and spread the delta variant than previous variants, unvaccinated people are more likely than vaccinated people to contract COVID-19 in general and have more severe symptoms.

“Delta variant infections in vaccinated people potentially have reduced transmissibility compared to infections in unvaccinated people, although more studies are needed,” says the CDC.

Even with protective measures like masking, COVID-19 has affected firefighters and the city “significantly,” Coddington said.

The fire department allocated $ 2.1 million of overtime, quarantine and workers’ compensation to the pandemic in 2020 and more than $ 1 million in 2021. It lost 2,633 hours of work for quarantine and 2,383 hours for work-related COVID-19 cases in 2020. In 2021, he lost 3,063 hours of work in quarantine and 1,876 hours for work-related COVID-19.

The city paid $ 360,000 in response to 434 workers’ compensation claims, including 123 employees who filed multiple COVID-19-related claims.

“Making sure it’s a safe working environment for everyone is a priority,” Coddington said.

The city considered systematically testing exempt people, but the cost was too high, estimated at between $ 300,000 and $ 1 million per year depending on the frequency.

Making accommodations would also have put department heads in a position to apply their parameters. However, several of those who requested an exemption are themselves in leadership positions, Coddington noted.

The city is also concerned that it could be held liable if the guidelines are not followed. Not only would employees potentially lose their licenses, but the city itself could be open to legal action, according to Coddington.

Archer objected to the city’s use of a hypothetical liability, which he views as a violation of civil rights.

Other fire departments in Washington approached the situation differently, Archer said, and were able to take action for firefighters with approved exemptions.

The South King Fire & Rescue Board of Commissioners recently banned unvaccinated firefighters from providing face-to-face medical care, the Federal Way Mirror reported.

Archer acknowledged that it would be costly for the Spokane Fire Department to ensure that more than 50 firefighters were never in close contact with someone in need of medical attention, but said he was comfortable put on additional personal protective equipment such as that worn during the pandemic.

Comparisons with other cities and counties are misleading, Coddington argued, as a smaller percentage of their firefighters have requested exemptions.

The 50 or so exemptions in Spokane “is a much higher number than what you’ve seen in the state, and some of the example departments have single-digit exemption requests,” Coddington said.

The city does not summarily dismiss exempt employees on October 19. Instead, she presented several options, some of which provide additional time to get vaccinated and comply with the governor’s order.

An employee can choose to be laid off, which gives them the option of returning within three years. They can take unpaid leave of absence up to 90 days or use paid leave until November 30.

Employees can also choose retirement, separation or resignation.

In all the options, it is considered that they leave in good standing with the city.

Employees can apply for another job in the city, for which Mayor Nadine Woodward has not instituted a vaccination mandate.

It is not known how many unvaccinated employees of the Spokane Fire Department will be willing to lose their jobs. Firefighters like Archer are well paid relative to the median per capita income in Spokane. He earned a salary of $ 94,794 in 2020, according to city data.

Archer can collect early retirement, but with a penalty, he said. He will have to look for another job because he did not expect to retire for seven years.

Archer stressed that the union has supported vaccination efforts throughout the pandemic and does not oppose the governor’s tenure, it only opposes the management of the city.

“It’s bad and it’s wrong, and I feel like I would be supporting some form of evil by supporting what’s going on,” Archer said.

The town hosts a vaccination clinic for first responders and their families at the Spokane Police Academy from noon to 5 p.m. Friday.

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