Opinion: Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate on state workers finally ending

Elizabeth Hovde believes Gov. Inslee’s vaccine mandate on employment was misguided from the outset.

Elizabeth Hovde believes Gov. Inslee’s vaccine mandate on employment was misguided from the outset

Elizabeth Hovde
Washington Policy Center

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee is busy signing bills today. Tomorrow, I think he should start putting his John Hancock on apology letters to former state workers who were terminated because of his vaccine mandate. 

Elizabeth Hovde
Elizabeth Hovde

I doubt he will, but since my wish came true that the governor is finally rescinding his directive that public workers and future hires must have COVID-19 vaccines to work in state executive and small cabinet agencies, I thought it a good time to wish for more.

In a press release about the move, the Inslee administration says that the end of the employment requirement “aligns with the end of the federal public health emergency and the lifting of vaccination requirements for federal employees and contractors on May 11. Last week, the World Health Organization announced an end to the global health emergency for COVID-19.”

That’s a good bandwagon to hop on. Any government jurisdiction that still has an employment-related vaccine mandate would be silly not to. However, I wasn’t sure what the governor would do, as has indicated his desire to be a lone rider before. When other states and local jurisdictions removed their misguided and outdated COVID-19 vaccine requirements, Inslee doubled- and tripled-down on his. (Some states never had vaccine mandates. COVID-19 outcomes in some of those states were comparable.)

The state Office of Financial Management will be providing notice to labor partners to negotiate changes to collective bargaining agreements, and it will start the process for amending civil service rules that the governor ordered containing COVID-19 vaccination requirements, the press release says. 

Booster incentives supplied with taxpayer dollars will remain in those contract negotiations with labor. “Beginning July 25, 2023, eligible state employees who choose to provide proof of their up-to-date vaccination status can qualify for a $1,000 incentive payment,” the news release says. That’s despite numbers showing that boosted individuals are faring worse than people with only initial vaccination when it comes to testing positive for COVID-19, being hospitalized or dying. Taxpayer money not well spent. The booster bucks have always felt more like a reward for like-minded thinkers than a public safety measure.

The press release failed to give any information about agencies’ ability to rehire the people who were thrown out of their jobs, so I followed up with the governor’s office. I asked if we could expect a rehire campaign for former workers who want to come back, especially since the state’s workforce was harmed by the terminations of 2021. I was told that people seeking re-employment can re-apply for jobs through the same process as any other interested candidate.

The state could do better — as in sending apology letters and courting potential rehires.

Rehires might help get the state out of its staffing problems in various agencies, and institutional knowledge of former workers should be highly valued. 

More than 2,000 state employees were lost due to the vaccine mandate that was implemented in October 2021. See separation data for various agencies here. Ferries and the Department of Transportation as a whole were hit hard.

Misguided from the start

Gov. Inslee’s vaccine mandate on employment is more than outdated. It was misguided from the outset.

When the employment requirement was implemented, we already knew that both unvaccinated and vaccinated people could spread and contract COVID-19. On July 30, 2021, NPR wrote this of a study about COVID-19 outcomes by vaccination status: “The study details a COVID-19 outbreak that started July 3 in Provincetown, Mass., involving 469 cases. It found that three-quarters of cases occurred in fully vaccinated people.” It continued, “It also found no significant difference in the viral load present in breakthrough infections occurring in fully vaccinated people and the other cases, suggesting the viral load of vaccinated and unvaccinated persons infected with the coronavirus is similar.”

We also knew at the time of the governor’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate that elderly people were the ones most at risk of getting severely ill or dying with or from COVID-19. Yet the mandate applied to working-age people. 

Individuals’ careers and finances were harmed by the vaccine mandate on employment, for no demonstrable public health benefit. In addition, the mandate helped fuel fire directed at people who were unvaccinated. In many social and work circles, even among family members, unvaccinated people were stigmatized and shunned. Oftentimes, they still are. They were called or thought of as selfish and uncaring by many, including public leaders.

In ordering the vaccine mandate in the summer of 2021, the governor said, “Getting vaccinated against COVID is a public good,” and, “We have a duty to protect them from the virus, they have the right to be protected, and the communities they serve and live in deserve protection as well.”

Apology letters from the governor’s office would be a public good. The state has a duty to protect former workers from societal scorn that grew, in part, because of the governor’s misguided vaccine mandate.

Elizabeth Hovde is a policy analyst and the director of the Centers for Health Care and Worker Rights at the Washington Policy Center. She is a Clark County resident.

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