WSDOT head tells legislature vaccine mandate had no impact on recent pass closures

Jan 11, 2022, 5:46 AM

pass closures...

A snow plow works to clear White Pass so it can reopen to traffic. (Photo courtesy of WSDOT and Snoqualmie Pass/Twitter)

(Photo courtesy of WSDOT and Snoqualmie Pass/Twitter)

Two major mountain passes in Washington reopened Sunday — Snoqualmie and Blewett — after being closed through the weekend by record snow. Stevens Pass will likely not open until Wednesday or later, and White Pass opened briefly Monday before closing again due to unstable slopes. But the debate continues over whether the governor’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate and the loss of key maintenance workers is to blame for these long pass closures.

The head of the Washington State Department of Transportation faced angry lawmakers on Monday.

Blame the weather, not vaccine mandates, for the current pass closures

House Republicans were out to make a statement. They wanted Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar to answer the questions they have been hearing from their constituents: Did firing 151 maintenance workers over the vaccine mandate have a significant impact on the long pass closures, and why can’t the mandate be eased to get these key people back on the job?

“They’re riding solo in a cab of a plow truck,” Representative Jim Walsh said to Millar. “Could you share with me the logic behind firing employees that are working solo in a truck that have no contact with any other employees, or the public for that matter?”

Millar countered that those employees have plenty of opportunities to catch the COVID-19 or spread it while on the job.

“When a technician drives a truck and they get out of the truck, somebody else gets in the truck,” he said. “Is that truck safe? They (workers) come into the office, they come into the sheds. They also respond to crashes, they fix guardrails, they paint stripes on our highways. There’s lots of things that maintenance technicians do beside driving alone in a truck.”

And from Millar’s perspective, no one was fired over the vaccine mandate.

“We didn’t fire anybody,” Millar told lawmakers. “The requirements changed, and people elected not to meet the requirements of staying employed at the agency.”

Representative Andrew Barkis, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, asked Millar if Gov. Inslee should step back the protocols because this is an emergency that has no signs of stopping.

“Looking at pre-mandate COVID protocols that could be brought back into place with some of those critical employees that are much-needed to help with the maintenance of our passes and snow plow and snow removal, with the fact that we still have three months or more of this winter ahead of us?” Barkis asked.

Millar told the committee that’s not necessary. The maintenance department actually has more employees now than after the vaccine mandate took effect.

“Since that time, we have hired 200 positions, including rehiring nine of our employees who left October 18, who elected to get vaccinated and come back to work,” Millar said.

Millar went further, saying that the weekend snow was so bad that having those unvaccinated employees on the job wouldn’t have mattered.

“We’re understaffed a little bit but not that much, and it would not have made a substantial difference,” he said.

Millar said he wouldn’t have sent his workers into that storm, no matter how many he had, because it just wasn’t safe.

“Mother Nature calls the shots, at the end of the day,” he said. “We don’t go up there and battle Mother Nature. She does her thing, and when it’s not safe to be there, it doesn’t matter how many people you have on the team.”

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WSDOT head tells legislature vaccine mandate had no impact on recent pass closures