Washington Policy Center’s Elizabeth Hovde discusses the plight of the many public workers who are facing vaccine mandates
Washington Policy Center
Labor Day came this year at a time when many public workers will soon lose their jobs. Can you imagine the stress, fear and sorrow in the household of an unvaccinated worker facing a vaccine mandate in our state? A recent KING-TV news segment about a longtime Gig Harbor firefighter highlights how heartbreaking the situation is.
I’m hearing bits of the anger, feelings of betrayal and cries for help. And some of it is rightly directed at the public-sector unions who are supposed to be representing government workers. They pay good money for such representation.
As a Spokesman-Review reporter wrote, “Vaccine mandates have put health care unions in a delicate position: They are strong supporters of the vaccines but have a duty to represent the interests of all their members, including those who don’t want to be vaccinated.”
The Washington Education Association teachers’ union has endorsed the mandate, leaving many school employees questioning their union loyalty and the dollars they send its way each year. Some unions are trying to bargain away the woe.
“We do have an obligation to bargain the impacts of that decision and if the unions want to have that discussion, we will have the discussions with union representatives,” Gov. Inslee said at a news conference in August. Taxpayers are going to pay a heavy price for this vaccine mandate.
Unions are not about to let the political mandate go to waste. And while their bargaining activity looks like it will help employees who are vaccinated, it doesn’t appear to be helping workers who don’t want vaccination.
Washington’s largest state worker union, the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE), announced a tentative agreement with the Inslee administration this past weekend. It doesn’t change the situation; workers still face vaccines or firings. But the union scored their members a vaccine “incentive” in the form of an extra personal leave day. The deal also includes timing delays, an early retirement arrangement and other concessions for unvaccinated members in some situations.
Keeping workers in jobs they’ve had and have done well, sometimes for years, seems like something that should interest unions and our governor — especially since both vaccinated and unvaccinated people can spread COVID-19 and because some government workers have medical conditions that will be complicated if they receive this vaccination. And while hospital staff being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients is an issue — one mentioned by Gov. Inslee in his proclamation declaring the mandate — it is a statewide issue. Forcing only some Washingtonians to be vaccinated to stay employed is discriminatory and punitive.
For workers declining vaccination and unable to get the hard-to-win exemptions set out in the governor’s proclamation, the situation is maddening. One King County worker who is resisting the mandate, and who says he is representing dozens of fellow workers facing job loss, wrote me this about communication with his union: “I will be sending them a letter tomorrow laying out what we want from them or we dump them. We’re paying $120 a month for nothing.”
Public employees can decide whether to be union members and give part of their wages to a union, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus decision. The following website helps workers making the decision to opt out of union membership a clear process. Visit www.optouttoday.com.
Whether you agree with the vaccine mandate for government workers or not, this Labor Day is a great time for workers to check into how to represent themselves if their unions aren’t doing that job.
Elizabeth Hovde is the director of the Center for Health Care and the Center for Worker Rights at the Washington Policy Center. She is also a Clark County resident.