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170 Seattle first responders off duty after vaccine deadline

Most of those workers are seeking religious or medical exemptions

seattle police officers masks

Seattle Police officers wear N95 masks as they listen to conversation during a citizen call Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Seattle.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

By Sarah Grace Taylor
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Just one day after the deadline for Seattle city employees to become vaccinated against the coronavirus, 176 Seattle police officers and firefighters are unable to report to work as the city’s mandate took effect and hundreds of employees failed to comply or sought exemptions, according to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office.

While the city boasted 99% of its roughly 11,000 employees were in compliance with the mandate of as of Monday’s deadline, 5% of those employees filed for or received a religious or medical exemption from the vaccine.

Now, some of those roughly 520 employees will be given temporary accommodation to work off-site, while others face uncertainty as they seek accommodation to keep their jobs without being vaccinated.

Meanwhile, departments that rely heavily on front-line workers, especially first responders, are facing staffing shortfalls.

In all, 103 sworn and civilian SPD employees submitted requests for either a medical or religious exemption and six others have “entered the separation process,” according to the police department. All six of those facing separation for noncompliance are sworn officers.

Of those in the exemption process, 93 are sworn officers, who were not allowed to report for work on Tuesday and likely will not be working for several weeks, said Stephanie Formas, Durkan’s chief of staff.

In the meantime, SPD released a statement Tuesday saying each of the exempted employees — or those still seeking exemption — will be using their individual accrued time off as “the decision on when and whether they will be allowed to return to work” is determined.

According to Formas, the city expects it will take four to six weeks for the city and employees to resolve exemption requests.

“While we work to reach 100% vaccination compliance within the Seattle Police Department, there may be some impacts to our service levels, especially given our loss in staffing over the past two years,” the statement reads.

“To that end, the department has developed a series of plans to provide the best level of service, including augmenting patrol staffing with officers from the Community Response Group first, before detectives and other non-patrol sworn employees are asked to return to the streets.”

Similarly, while 93% of the Seattle Fire Department is vaccinated, 66 employees are undergoing the vaccine and accommodation process but are on leave “until the accommodation process is complete or a member chooses to get fully vaccinated,” according to a statement from the department.

Another 11 SFD employees did not submit proof of vaccination or apply for an exemption and are now facing termination.

For union-represented employees in each department, the separation process allows employees to request and receive a voluntary Loudermill hearing to appeal to human resources and department leadership.

In the statement, SFD says they do not expect the staffing to hobble first-response efforts.

“The fire department wants to assure the community that we do not expect significant response delays and will continue to fulfill our mission of responding to all 9-1-1 calls for fire suppression and emergency medical services,” the statement reads. “Members of the public who need our help can make calls to 9-1-1 for life threatening emergencies and firefighter/EMTs (and paramedics for more serious injuries) will arrive in personal protective equipment to provide patient treatment or to extinguish fires. The department’s Fire Prevention Division will continue to provide inspections, process permit applications and respond to investigate the cause of fires.”

According to the mayor’s office, the city is still working through the accommodation process and is unable to determine how many of the 520 employees seeking exemption will be allowed to work remotely, but 20 additional employees who were once seeking exemption have chosen to be vaccinated since Monday.

“Each department will evaluate reasonable temporary or permanent accommodation based on an individualized process that considers a variety of factors, including current CDC and public health recommendations; the employee’s job duties and work environment; and whether there is a way for the employee to perform their job without jeopardizing the health of safety of others or imposing an undue hardship on the city,” Formas said in an email late Tuesday.

“Our goal has always been to get our city employees vaccinated, and before an employee makes the decision to leave, departments may offer an employee a last chance to get vaccinated or get an exemption where the employee demonstrates a sincere need for one.”

According to the mayor’s office, some departments are 100% vaccinated. Others are facing similar exemption requests to SFD and SPD, including Seattle City Light with 84 exemptions, Seattle Public Utilities with 72 exemptions, Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation with 47 exemptions and the Seattle Department of Transportation with 35 exemptions.

The city was unable to provide data on resignations related to the mandate.

In King County, where Executive Dow Constantine issued the same requirement and deadline, 92.3% of the over 14,000 employees covered by the mandate are fully vaccinated, but over 1,000 are seeking exemptions or did not comply.

According to a news release from Constantine’s office, 639 county employees have requested religious or medical exemptions and are “in the process to determine whether accommodations can be provided.”

Another 450 employees did not comply with the mandate and will receive proposed termination letters this week, according to the release.

The King County Sheriff’s Office has 71 sworn officers in the exemption process and 12 who did not comply with the mandate. Metro transit operators accounted for over 200 of the other off-duty employees, with 119 seeking exemption and 96 not complying with the mandate.

In a memo to employees on Tuesday, Constantine thanked those who had gotten vaccinated and said the county was working to sort out accommodations for exempted employees.

“As public servants, we have an obligation to do everything we can to protect the health and safety of the people we serve and the people we work alongside,” he wrote. “We have an obligation to lead by example, and I am grateful that, once again, you have shown your commitment to this region through your actions. By having as many people as possible fully vaccinated in our workforce, we can ensure we continue to be there for our community.”

“We are working through complex issues related to employee requests for accommodation and the processes associated with employees who chose not to vaccinate. I thank you for respecting the privacy of all employees.”

(c)2021 The Seattle Times