One Seattle firefighter’s heartfelt concerns show valid concerns over pending October decision
Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a sweeping COVID-19 vaccine mandate, requiring state employees and healthcare workers to get the vaccine. They must show proof of having the vaccination by Oct. 18 or risk being fired. He later expanded the requirement to include K-12 and higher education employees. Many have called this the strictest and most extreme vaccine mandate in the nation.
It would be understandable if area citizens are concerned about whether or not first responders will be there for them if they need to call 9-1-1. Terminated employees also don’t know if they will be able to collect unemployment benefits under the Inslee order.
One news report indicates that firefighters are considered “healthcare workers” because of their EMT and paramedic training. Police officers don’t have that training, and are therefore not included in the Inslee mandate.
Pierce County firefighter unions are preparing for the staffing fallout. News reports indicate fire chiefs and union leaders have estimated that about 30 percent of their departments or membership have yet to be vaccinated. A Thurston County firefighter shared they may have up to 60 firefighters seeking exemptions.
Here in Clark County, Camas-Washougal Fire Chief Nick Swinhart shared the following regarding his fire department.
“The City is actively involved in discussions with IAFF Local #2444, which represents the Camas-Washougal Fire Department members, regarding the Governor’s mandate, since we do have an obligation to bargain the impacts of this decision.
“We are drafting a City policy for the mandate as well as accommodations that would be made for employees that receive a religious or medical exemption, as well as working on how to address the employment status of those not willing to receive the vaccine. Currently, over 90% of the employees falling under this mandate are fully vaccinated.”
In Vancouver, “some city employees such as first responders in the Vancouver Fire Department, are required to be vaccinated by mid-October under the governor’s vaccination mandate for those working in medical/health care environments,” Director of Communications Cara Rene said.
Inslee said the state would bargain in good faith over the requirements with unions representing affected state employees.
But the 45,000-member Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) is accusing the Inslee administration of breaking that commitment — and failing to provide needed details about how the mandate will affect the state workforce.
“To put it very bluntly, I feel like we launched a plane into the air before we figured out whether there’s a pilot on board,” said Mike Yestramski, WFSE’s president. He said state negotiators dismissed all of the union’s proposals at a bargaining session this week and failed to shed any light on key questions about the rollout.
Allyson Hinzman, president of the Tacoma Firefighters Local 31 union, said the mandate could have a “pretty significant impact” on the 412 members in the fire union.
“We’ve been stretched pretty thin,” she said. “Our biggest concern with the mandate is not only losing people, but the fact that we’re losing people over an issue of them wanting to make a decision that they feel is right for their bodies and their family.”
Aletha Bitar’s story
A Seattle area firefighter shared a very heartfelt message on social media, regarding the decision she now faces. She asks for mutual respect and understanding. Her post was read by KVI radio host John Carlson on Monday.
Aletha Bitar is a 26-year-old firefighter who has been serving her community since she was 23. “I wanted to bring this story to your attention about the Seattle firefighter, because it really shows the depth of the vaccine mandate; how deeply personal it gets,” Carlson said.
Carlson then read her posting.
“As most of you know, Washington State Governor Inslee mandated that state employees of volunteers, teachers, public and private health care workers, and many others be fully vaccinated by October 18. If not, these people will lose their jobs, including me.
“As a Seattle firefighter, I must now make that choice. You may be thinking, what’s the big deal? Why not just take the vaccine. I’d like to tell you why.
“I’m not anti-vaccine. I believe the vaccine could help certain people in the world, one of them being one of my family members, who had life threatening health problems this year ended up in the hospital for over a month, though not due to COVID. During that time, I was unable to visit them, not even once.
“I know what it’s like not being able to see your loved one because of COVID. I understand that the feeling of fear from not knowing what’s next, believe me, I understand, I really do. And I respect anyone’s decision to get the vaccine because that’s what you feel is right. I respect that. And I respect you. I wear my mask, because I care.
“But now please understand me and my fears. I’m a 26-year-old woman who wants to live a long and wonderful life, a life serving you. And a life living out my dreams. Someday I want a beautiful family, just like yours.
“I imagine holding my future son or daughter in my arms, and looking into their face and maybe seeing a little bit of me in them. I want to walk with them hand in hand, tell them all about the wonderful stories from my job. I want to show them they can do whatever they set their mind to if they work hard, and stand up for what they believe in. I want what you have.
“But I’m afraid that could be taken away from me now because of that vaccine. You may think I’m being extreme, but I don’t think this is an extreme statement.
“The vaccine is so new that we don’t really know what the negative effects are. The vaccine has been out for less than a year and yet there are already “140,000 women reporting the vaccine has changed their menstrual cycle,” according to an NPR National Public Radio article. A change in menstrual cycles can then of course affect a woman’s ability to conceive a child. And those are results from just the first year. What happens when women continually take booster shots?
“How much more will this vaccine negatively affect our bodies? The answer is we don’t know. That same NPR article stated that quote so far, scientists haven’t collected much data on whether or how the vaccines might affect a menstrual period. This is just one example of the many unknowns and unstudied issues related to the vaccines.
“The only way to know is with more time and studies. But I’m now out of time. I have a month to decide what to do with my health, my body and my career. And if I decide I am unwilling to take the risks this vaccine could have on me. I lose everything.
“As I put on a mask and distance myself out of respect for you and to help subside your fears of COVID, I’m asking you, what are you willing to do to protect me? Force me to put the vaccine in my body or say I will lose my job. I have only had this career for two and a half years. Think of the men and women who’ve served you for 20 years with families to support?
“Isn’t there a better solution? Does it even make sense to mandate a vaccine, when vaccinated people can still give the virus to others. Ask yourself that. I am being told, not asked to put something into my body that we know very little about. And I fear the long term effects it could have. And I fear that my rights are being stripped away from me.
“If we say no to the vaccine, we will lose everything. But if we say yes, we have to live with not only the consequences the vaccines have on our bodies, but have to live with ourselves knowing we did not hold to what we believe in.
“I want to be a firefighter, at your department, so that I can be that person who’s there on the hardest day of someone else’s life. I want to have an exciting and adventurous career. But mostly I want to be part of an organization that values what I value. I want to be part of an amazing team that challenges each other and makes each other better people. And in return, I will be the firefighter that meets those standards of excellence. I will be the firefighter that upholds honesty and integrity.
“I hope that my dream from three years ago stays true. The department that I see right now though, the fire department, is a divided and broken one. We have the ability to change that. Not by refusing to wear masks or forcing each other to get vaccinated but by coming together with respect for each person’s needs and finding a way to protect us all.
“Please help all of us who may lose our jobs in the next month — firefighters, police, nurses, etc. We’ve been there for you in your hour of need. Please be there for us by being involved in standing up for our rights, our health and our freedom to choose. We’re not asking you to be against the vaccine. We’re asking you to stand up for our freedom to choose without our jobs being taken away from us.”
Carlson closed the segment with the following comments.
“Does this young woman sound like someone you don’t want in a fire department? Or does she sound like exactly the kind of person you want in a fire department? Does this young woman sound unreasonable to you? Does this young woman sound extreme to you?
“No. She sounds measured. She sounds reasonable. She sounds like an intelligent, caring, measured, balanced young lady. And she is exactly the kind of person we want in our fire department, in our police departments, in our teaching profession. Exactly the kind of young woman we would want as a nurse or as a doctor, or other health care practitioner. Should this woman be fired? That’s my simple question for you.”
Unemployment benefits in question
Should Bitar or her fellow firefighters be fired or resign, they are not guaranteed unemployment benefits.
“I think we’re going to see a second wave of people seeking unemployment assistance, either because they’ve been terminated or they’ve resigned as a result of the [vaccine] mandate,” said Jason Rittereiser, an attorney at HKM Employment Attorneys in Seattle. “And how that’s going to play out, I think, is a very open question at the moment.”
Unemployment claims filed by workers who defy the vaccine mandate will be decided on a case-by-case basis, said Clare DeLong, spokesperson for the state Employment Security Department (ESD) on Thursday.
But unless affected workers can demonstrate that employers didn’t follow guidelines on matters such as offering religious exemptions or giving employees enough time to get the vaccine, DeLong added, employees who “separate” over the mandate “shouldn’t be assuming that they’re going to get unemployment insurance.”
Union leaders believe the mandate took away the right for firefighters to choose the best option for them and their families. They wanted to see an alternative to the vaccine, like frequent testing and mask-wearing.
If firefighters choose to leave, it could be devastating for many communities. Camas Mayor Ellen Burton shared following a Monday Open House event for citizens that it takes well over a year to hire and to train a new firefighter.