By Paul Kiefer
Several of Seattle’s largest public employee unions filed identical complaints with the state Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) on Tuesday about the rollout of the new vaccine mandate, less than a day after the deadline for public employees to turn in proof of vaccination.
The complaint, first filed by the PROTEC17 union, as well as a union representing electrical workers, focuses on the treatment of city employees who sought exemptions from the vaccine mandate on religious or medical grounds. The city first started notifying employees that their exemption requests were approved or denied on October 11.
Before Seattle’s vaccine mandate took effect on October 18, the city offered employees a chance to apply to be exempt from the vaccine requirement—on the condition that they reach an agreement with their department about how to continue working while minimizing their risk of transmitting COVID-19 to coworkers or the public. Of nearly 700 exemption requests, the city approved about 520.
According to the complaint, when the unions reached an agreement about the vaccine mandate in September, they expected city departments to adhere to their promise to meet with unvaccinated workers to come up with accommodations—working from home indefinitely, for instance—before the October 18 deadline. According to PROTEC17 negotiator Shaun Van Eyk, that didn’t happen: only two dozen employees with exemptions had a chance to meet with their supervisors to discuss accommodations before the mandate took effect, while another 500 employees landed on paid or unpaid leave. “It’s unfortunate that we had to resort to filing this Unfair Labor Practice in order to preserve union members’ rights as we agreed to, and as outlined in our contract,” said PROTEC17 Executive Director Karen Estevenin in an email on Thursday.
Since the agreement didn’t anticipate this delay, the unions argue the city needs to return to the negotiating table—and provide back pay or restore paid leave days for employees who keep their jobs.
On October 14, several departments—including the Seattle Department of Transportation and Seattle Public Utilities, among others—issued letters informing their employees with religious exemptions that their “individualized interactive process” to consider possible accommodations was over—according to the complaint, the letter came as a surprise to some employees, who didn’t know the process had started in the first place. While the departments hadn’t identified any accommodations for unvaccinated employees, the letters offered three options: comply with the vaccine requirement, come up with a proposal for accommodations, or leave.
The following day, the same departments backpedaled, issuing new letters offering employees with exemptions a chance to meet with human resources staff to discuss accommodations. In the corrected letter, the departments wrote that any employees with exemptions would need to use their own paid or unpaid leave if they weren’t fully vaccinated, accommodated, or fired by October 18.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) remains the only Seattle public employee union that hasn’t reached an agreement with the city about the vaccine mandate. In a press release on Monday afternoon, SPOG President Mike Solan claimed that the police department planned to refuse accommodations for any officers who received exemptions on religious grounds; he also claimed that the department refused to accommodate officers who received medical exemptions, including an organ transplant recipient. According to Solan, nearly 100 of his union’s members have religious or medical exemptions.
Though the Seattle Police Department announced on Tuesday that it has just begun what will likely be a lengthy process of firing six officers for not complying with the vaccine mandate, that number could rise in the coming weeks if the department actually refuses to accommodate officers with exemptions, as Solan claimed it will.