Washington state employees who were previously granted religious exemptions from the statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate found out this week that those exemptions had been suddenly revoked, leaving them only days to either get the jab or face termination.
KCPQ-TV reported Thursday that nearly a dozen employees at the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife received letters this week announcing their reasonable accommodation permissions had been rescinded.
The news outlet said that "in one instance, an employee was granted an accommodation on Sept. 20, only to be notified nine days later that the agency changed its mind."
That worker, Brad Otto — a 20-year veteran of the DFW — said he felt "betrayed" his employer's last-minute decision, adding, "I don't believe that it's personal, but you never know. These are weird times, having to either comply or leave a job you love."
In a Sept. 29 letter to Otto, DFW said only that it has "received additional guidance that has altered how we are evaluating these reasonable accommodation requests ... upon further review and consideration, while your religious exemption has been approved, we are unable to identify a reasonable accommodation that would allow you to continue to perform all of the essential functions of your job."
The agency had previously told Otto that he could continue performing his job if he either worked remotely or wore a mask and practiced social distancing while at work.
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Given the short time frame before employees are expected to show proof of full vaccination, Otto and other colleagues now only have the option to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires just a single dose for full vaccination.
In accordance with Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee's order, most workers must receive the vaccine by Oct. 4 in order to be considered fully vaccinated by Oct. 18.
KCPQ noted it was not immediately clear whether other state agencies were also affected, but said it was working with the state's Office of Financial Management to find out.
KING-TV reported this week that upward of 1,700 state employees granted exemptions "could lose their jobs because agencies cannot accommodate them with non-public positions."
In a response to questioning, the DFW attributed its abrupt policy change, in part, to "additional guidance from the OFM." But KCPQ says that OFM guidance hasn't been updated since Sept 13.
DFW Public Affairs Director Carrie McCausland explained in an email: "The safest workplace is one with fully vaccinated staff with as few exceptions as possible. This said, a decision was made to no longer accept the inherent risk of a workplace where both staff who are vaccinated and staff who [do] not need to navigate around each in other in communal areas, hallways, printer/copiers areas, restrooms, etc. for the sake of each other's safety. This is not staff's burden to share; it is the employer's responsibility not to have staff in a situation where they have to decide if it is safe to go to work."
"In short, the agency simply changed its mind," the news outlet translated.