Opinion: When the next storm comes, the public should expect WSDOT to do better

Mariya Frost of the Washington Policy Center points out the likelihood that, for political reasons, the WSDOT secretary and governor are not going to admit they made a mistake, no matter how much harm that does.
File photo.

Mariya Frost of the Washington Policy Center points out the likelihood that, for political reasons, the WSDOT secretary and governor are not going to admit they made a mistake, no matter how much harm that does

Mariya Frost
Washington Policy Center

After firing over 400 employees in October to comply with the Governor’s vaccine mandate, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is scrambling to find people who will do the important work of keeping our roads safe this winter. Some of the people they’re hiring include private contractors who have a vaccine mandate in place for their employees which requires either proof of COVID vaccination or a religious/medical exemption process for those who are unable to get vaccinated.

Mariya Frost
Mariya Frost

In practice, this means that after firing unvaccinated WSDOT employees, the agency may now be hiring unvaccinated contractors who are being accommodated by their employer in ways that WSDOT would not.

Accommodation simply means that an employer can make an adjustment or modification to the work environment that will allow an employee to continue working while complying with a sincerely held religious belief or having a medical reason for not taking the vaccine.

In fall of 2021, many WSDOT employees submitted religious and medical exemptions to the vaccine. The agency received 572 religious and 88 medical exemption requests. Of the 572 religious exemptions, 455 were approved, but only 51 were accommodated (about 9 percent of total requests). Of the 88 medical exemptions, 83 were approved, but only 43 were accommodated (about 49 percent of total requests).

WSDOT refused to provide reasonable accommodations for 86 percent of total requests.

That is significant, particularly on top of WSDOT’s existing staffing shortage. WSDOT acknowledged the difficulty in early November when they told the public to expect delays and longer closures through the passes should a snowstorm hit. Yet last week in the House Transportation Committee, WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar minimized the impact of the firings and the vaccine mandate on WSDOT’s ability to clear roads in a timely fashion.

A couple days later, we learned that the agency rejected snow plow help from Kittitas County officials, who wanted to assist clearing State Route 903 through one of their towns as it was impacting residents’ ability to access food and medical services. WSDOT declined their help on the basis that the county didn’t have a vaccine mandate for county employees. They hired a private contractor instead.

The governor’s vaccine mandate (Proclamation 21-14 and Proclamation 21-14-1) allows for state agencies to hire private contractors as long as the prime contractor (and subcontractors) provide proof of vaccination “or have been granted a disability [medical] or religious exemption for which a reasonable accommodation has been provided.” The state can also choose for the contractor to assume responsibility for complying with the governor’s proclamation and, in so doing, being responsible for verifying vaccinations and approving or rejecting exemption requests.

Secretary Millar told lawmakers last week that the contractor they hired signed a declaration to that end, showing they have a “process in place” to verify vaccinations or provide exemptions.

It’s worth noting that it is up to the contractor to determine what a reasonable accommodation is, so they may very well be either more or less lenient than the state. Chances are – for road maintenance work – they are more lenient, as they should be. (The state’s vaccination, exemption, and reasonable accommodation guidance for contractors can be found here.)

If WSDOT is going to accept whatever accommodations private contractors provide to unvaccinated employees – and potentially hire those unvaccinated employees to do work on state property – they should be allowed to hire unvaccinated state employees as well (or employees from local jurisdictions) to fill vacancies as quickly as possible. That would be ideal, especially since we are halfway into winter and there may very well be another weather event like the snowstorm we experienced a couple weeks ago. The agency needs all the help it can get in emergency situations like this, and declining help from local jurisdictions that don’t have a vaccine mandate in place and may have unvaccinated crew, only to then hire private contractors who may also have unvaccinated crew they are reasonably accommodating, simply doesn’t make any sense.

However, it is also obvious that for political reasons, the WSDOT secretary and governor are not going to admit they made a mistake, no matter how much harm that does. So while it would be best to end the charade and change the mandate to give WSDOT more room to hire whoever they need for road maintenance regardless of vaccination status – the next best option is for WSDOT to rely on private contractors who may be more accommodating of religious and medical exemption requests. That would allow the agency to maintain the façade they want, while ultimately helping the traveling public.

This is an absurd outcome, and it is ridiculous that the state has gotten itself into this corner. However, this is where we are. If WSDOT (and the governor) are confronted with this situation again in the near future, the public should expect them to handle it much better.

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

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