Opinion: State lawmakers should pass bill correcting wrong against state workers in COVID-19 times

Elizabeth Hovde states that passage of the bill would scrub the lack of a COVID-19 vaccination from a former employee’s personnel files.

Elizabeth Hovde states that passage of the bill would scrub the lack of a COVID-19 vaccination from a former employee’s personnel files

Elizabeth Hovde
Washington Policy Center

As I write this, more than 90 bills have been filed so far this week for consideration by the Legislature in 2024. The session starts on January 8. I’m reading about a dozen of these bills, looking for the good, the bad and the ugly among this relatively small batch.

Elizabeth Hovde
Elizabeth Hovde

Some of them will never see the light of day. I expect that to include House Bill 1871, which concerns Washington State Ferries’ (WSF) employees and how they were treated because of Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate that required state workers to have proof of COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment. 

The mandate, now rescinded, aged poorly from the time it was implemented and firings took place. We were already aware that a COVID-19 vaccine did not keep a person from spreading or contracting the virus. Even with that knowledge, news that was constantly being updated and the information that COVID-19 had the most serious consequences primarily for those beyond their working years, the state moved ahead with a vaccine mandate on workers that persisted until May of 2023. 

More than 2,000 public employees, or around 3.4% of state workers, lost their careers. Take that in. People, employed by taxpayers, lost their livelihoods because they would not take a vaccine they and some of their health caregivers worried was unsafe for them and that could not prevent the contraction or spread of a disease. Terminated workers also endured public scorn that existed in part because of the government directive and verbiage surrounding COVID-19 shots. That’s why this issue still matters and why state lawmakers should be interested in this bill. The Legislature should stand up for this minority community. 

Some state agencies suffered staffing shortages caused or exacerbated by the misguided mandate, harming not just individuals but the state as a whole. Ferry cancellations became an expectation, as 132 WSF employees were among 402 Department of Transportation employees who lost their jobs because of the mandate. And when the governor’s directive was rescinded, even with staffing shortages, former state workers didn’t get an apology or invitation back to their public careers. Instead, the governor’s office said they could apply for state jobs just like anyone else. 

What the bill does

HB 1871 has three parts: The first and second parts of the bill say WSF can’t require any prospective hire to be vaccinated or present proof of vaccination against COVID-19 as a condition of employment. (That’s simply a clarification that bill sponsor Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, told me WSF employees seek. The rescission of the governor’s directive in May and statements from the governor’s office since then make that clear to me.) 

But the last part of the legislation contains this: Passage of the bill would scrub the lack of a COVID-19 vaccination from a former employee’s personnel files, “along with any associated management’s adverse actions against the employee.”  Also, to the extent possible, “rehired employees must be restored to their previous level of seniority.” 

This should be happening for all state workers who were mistreated when the state got ahead of science and decided to terminate them. 

HB 1871 doesn’t require the governor to say he was wrong or apologize. That will continue to be swept under the rug. But at least ferry workers who want their jobs back could return with a clean slate and the restoration of an accomplishment they had earned. 

See all pre-filed bills here: https://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/prefiled.aspx

See agency breakdowns of employees separated from their work because of Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate here: https://ofm.wa.gov/sites/default/files/public/shr/COVID19/VaccinationReport_Jan122022.pdf

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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