Opinion: Lawmakers urge Gov. Jay Inslee and WSDOT to modify mandate and accept snow removal aid regardless of vaccination status

Mariya Frost of the Washington Policy Center shares the issues created by WSDOT’s staff shortage, worsened by the governor’s vaccine mandate.
Photo: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Mariya Frost of the Washington Policy Center shares the issues created by WSDOT’s staff shortage, worsened by the governor’s vaccine mandate

Mariya Frost
Washington Policy Center

House Republican transportation lead Rep. Andrew Barkis, along with other representatives, sent a letter to Governor Inslee and Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar today asking them to “take action to modify [the mandate] and empower both WSDOT and WSP to do what is necessary to get supply lines fully open and restore safer passage for all.”

Mariya Frost
Mariya Frost

This letter comes after WSDOT’s staff shortage was worsened by the governor’s vaccine mandate and resulted in the agency firing over 400 employees in late October, right before winter. According to WSDOT, the shortage impacted service levels in the passes, causing longer delays and closures.

Last week, after significant snowfall, all four passes closed for four days, negatively impacting public safety and access for travelers, workplace safety for overworked and understaffed WSDOT crew, food security, and freight deliveries.

After the passes had opened, Kittitas County, which still had significant snow on state roads that pass through its communities, offered to help WSDOT clear snow to help county residents (which they needed permission from the state to do). WSDOT, which has a staffing shortage and is actively trying to hire maintenance crew, declined. The agency said they couldn’t accept assistance from the county because the county didn’t have a vaccine mandate, similar to that of the state, in place for its employees. The county couldn’t provide a declaration saying all of its staff were either vaccinated or exempted under a mandate.

Situations like these can and should be avoided. The letter echoes this, by suggesting the mandate be modified so that:

  • Workers who have had COVID can work at WSDOT and WSP whether they’re vaccinated or not;
  • Agencies don’t have to check vaccination status of snow removal personnel, contractors and highway maintenance crews;
  • Agencies can accept mutual aid from cities and counties, like Kittitas County, to address unsafe winter road conditions if people socially distance and have safety protocols in place.

The letter rightly emphasizes that “we need more essential workers, not less.” With changing circumstances and risk factors surrounding COVID, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it would make sense for the Governor to revisit the vaccine mandate and modify it so that it doesn’t yield negative returns in terms of public safety.

House Bill 1963 has been introduced to deal with this issue as well, allowing WSDOT “to either hire or rehire maintenance and preservation employees that have immunities to COVID-19.”

Mariya Frost is the director of the Coles Center for Transportation at the Washington Policy Center.

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