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Essential workers’ unions in Washington respond to updated vaccine eligibility

A sign thanks medical personnel and other groups at the entrance to Life Care Center of Kirkland, which was linked to dozens of COVID-19 deaths, in Kirkland, Washington. March 1, 2021, marked the one-year anniversary of the first reported COVID-19 death in the United States. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Gov. Inslee’s announcement Thursday of the updated timeline and expanded eligibility for the next vaccine tiers in Washington added many essential workers to the next phase, while leaving others off.

COVID vaccine eligibility to expand in March, April as supply increases

The Washington State Labor Council thanked the governor Thursday for allowing more essential workers in congregate settings to access the vaccine in the next phase, now expected before the end of March. The union, which represents some 500,000 union members statewide, said earlier this week that all essential workers should be getting the COVID vaccine, not just educators and child care workers.

Union President Larry Brown had said in a previous statement that Washington’s “essential workers who must work in congregate settings should be prioritized in the state’s vaccination distribution plan.”

Brown is now thanking Inslee and the state Department of Health for “recognizing that more essential workers in congregate settings should have access to the COVID-19 vaccines as quickly as possible.”

The full statement is included below:

The Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO thanks Governor Inslee and the state Department of Health for recognizing that more essential workers in congregate settings should have access to the COVID-19 vaccines as quickly as possible. This is good news not just for the affected workers who face on-the-job coronavirus exposure every day, it’s good news for all Washingtonians who rely on the critical services these workers provide.

Right now, there are many essential frontline workers who have no choice but to interact with a high volume of people every single day. They are putting themselves and their families in harm’s way just by going to work. And many of these jobs are held by Black and brown workers, whose communities have been disproportionately harmed by COVID-19. Getting these essential workers vaccinated as quickly as possible is the right thing to do for frontline workers and will bolster vaccine equity efforts.

To the governor’s credit, Washington state has taken a science-based approach to vaccine prioritization. It continues to do so with this latest announcement. Scientists and public health experts have now confirmed that the vaccine is effective not only in preventing serious illness, but also in slowing transmission of the coronavirus. Therefore, greater emphasis on vaccinating essential workers in congregate settings is warranted in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 — including its new faster-spreading variants — among all Washingtonians.

Unfortunately, the vaccine’s current scarcity is a familiar obstacle for working people in this country who historically have been pitted against each other in the name of false economic scarcity. Washington’s labor movement will remain united in achieving the goal of making ALL essential workers eligible for vaccination. Until then, Governor Inslee and the Washington state government continue to demonstrate strong leadership in their handling of this public health crisis.

The Northwest Grocery Association and Washington Food Industry Association released the following joint statement in response to Gov. Inslee prioritizing grocery worker vaccinations in Phase 1B-2:

Today’s announcement that grocery workers have been prioritized for vaccination is the best possible news for our members. We thank the Governor for acknowledging the amazing effort our essential workers have made over the last twelve months and for recognizing that the best reward is to get them vaccinated as soon as possible. He has done the right thing. Now it’s time for Seattle and Burien to remove unfair, illegal, and burdensome pay increases that jeopardize neighborhood grocery stores, and do nothing to make grocery workers safer. We also encourage other cities grappling with how best to reward grocery workers to focus first on prioritizing vaccine distribution to the grocery workers in their communities.

However, it wasn’t all praise for the adjusted eligibility tiers, as one group — hospitality workers — is not currently included as part of the next phase.

Washington Hospitality Association President and CEO Anthony Anton says hospitality workers have served the community as “essential workers” since the start of the pandemic. He says they should be included in the first phase of essential workers, after health care workers.

Anton clarifies that they’re not asking to “jump ahead of high-risk and first responders,” but rather to be included with the other food chain and housing workers.

Read the full statement below:

Hospitality workers have served the community throughout the pandemic as ‘essential workers’ – and have done so extraordinarily safely.

The Washington Hospitality Association has advocated for our team members to be included in the first round of ‘essential workers’ at the federal, state, and local levels since the phases were first under consideration. When the phases were first announced, we reached out to elected officials with our surprise hospitality workers were not being included in the ‘essential workers’ phase after health care workers.

We are disappointed they are once again being left out and in fact being pushed further back in line as the first and second phases have expanded to include others. We aren’t asking to jump ahead of high risk and first responders, we are asking to be included with other essential food chain and housing workers.

The state’s vaccination program has a glaring hole without hospitality workers – 40 percent of whom are Black, Indigenous and people of color – included in the next phase.

The move forward to an expanded Phase 1B, tier 2 — tentatively set for March 22 — will only happen if supply of the COVID-19 vaccine continues to increase.

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Eligible in Phase 1B-2 are now critical workers who work in certain congregate settings, including workers in agriculture, food processing, grocery stores, public transit, fire fighters, law enforcement, as well as workers in corrections, prisons, jails, or detention centers. There will be no age distinction required for this tier, which essentially means that Phase 1B-2 will include all the critical workers who were previously in phases 1B-2 and 1B-4.

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