Gov. Inslee: ‘No reason to abandon a career’ over COVID vaccine mandate
Governor Jay Inslee announced a new vaccine mandate Wednesday for all K-12 public school teachers in Washington state. They must now be vaccinated — with limited exceptions for medical or religious reasons — or risk losing their job. The mandate also applies to private and charter school staff statewide.
But what happens if a significant number of educators choose not to get vaccinated and lose their jobs? How would the state handle the ensuing staffing shortage?
“It is our hope and I think grounded belief that once people think about this, they’re going to choose to stay in these incredibly important careers. These are dedicated people,” Gov. Inslee said in a Wednesday press conference. “And there’s simply no reason to abandon a career when you have a safe, effective vaccine available to you, and we are confident the vast majority of people will make that decision.”
If there are a few who do not, Inslee says the administration will find a solution.
“But that should not happen,” he said. “We should talk to our teachers — we love them, we respect them, we need them. We should not allow them to make a decision that’s bad for their health and bad for our kids. I think if we pull together as a state, we’re going to find relatively minimal problems in that regard.”
By Oct. 5, Inslee says the state will know who has started their vaccination process and who has not. All state employees, via a previous mandate, and now all school staff must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18. If people do not come into compliance — and do not seek an exemption — they will be discharged via a formal process.
“This is a serious issue,” Inslee said. “This is not some suggestion or whimsical idea we are floating. It is a job requirement, and people will be held to account by loss of job if they can not come in compliance. But they can, and I believe people will.”
Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal also said OSPI has already been doing regular, informal checks to see how many of their employees are vaccinated, but they have not been able ask employees to share their vaccination status. This mandate will change that, he says, and will require proof of vaccination or an approved exemption.
“This is not new to our school system. We have vaccine requirements for our students and there’s a process for that,” he said. “Local districts are the employers of these individuals. They know how to do this, they will do the verification and they’ll do the checking and confirmations.”
Reykdal estimates that certificated staff are well in excess of 70% vaccinated statewide, with some regions reporting that it’s quite a bit higher than that. There’s consistent feedback that it’s slightly less than that for some other employee groups, he added.
“Our goal is to get them all vaccinated,” he said.
“We are not talking about 140,000 folks who still need it, but probably 40,000-50,000 of all of our employees and folks who are contracted with us who will need to pursue this at this point in time,” he added.
He also clarified that the mandate will apply to substitutes, and said they will be treated like any other employee with that expectation.
In response to a possible staffing shortage, Reykdal said those issues are unfortunately not new.
“We always have some shortages in certain areas, different elements of the teaching workforce. We consistently have bus driver challenges, especially when the economy is really good and they have lots of options,” he said. “So districts are working through that plan. They’re thinking through that every day, they know where they can go get talent. But there are some times that are tough — you’ve seen administrators cover classrooms at times — and they will work very, very hard to replace and fill folks if we get to that point.”
“We don’t have to though,” he added. “Folks can vaccinate. Some small group will qualify for a medical exemption, and others will seek a religious exemption. We want to protect people’s rights, that’s what the governor has done here. But the best answer to this is to vaccinate with the safest vaccine we can imagine right now, and folks should do that.”
There is no constitutional right in jeopardy under a vaccine mandate. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1905, during the Jacobson v. Massachusetts case, to uphold the authority of states to enact compulsory vaccination laws.
Additionally, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has addressed that it’s legal under federal law for companies to require employees to get vaccinated before entering the workplace. Exceptions are made for pregnancy, religious beliefs, and health complications.
The EEO states: “The federal EEO laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19, subject to the reasonable accommodation provisions of Title VII and the ADA and other EEO considerations.”