EXCLUSIVE: State workers granted religious exemptions, only to have accommodations revoked at last minute

Nearly a dozen workers with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife found out this week that previously granted religious accommodations were being revoked – leaving them just a few days to get the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine or be fired, FOX 13 News has learned.

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.  

"…we have received additional guidance that has altered how we are evaluating these reasonable accommodation requests," read the Sept. 29 letter to Brad Otto, a 20-year veteran of DFW. "Based on the new guidance and a review of our business needs, and your work environment, your previously granted reasonable accommodation has been rescinded."

Otto, who spoke to FOX 13 News as a member of the Washington Association of Fish & Wildlife Professionals, said he felt "betrayed."

"I don’t believe that it’s personal, but you never know," he said. "These are weird times, having to either comply or leave a job you love."  

In an email to staff, DFW Deputy Director Amy Windrope acknowledged the unfortunate timing of the decision.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Religious exemption not enough to save jobs as vaccine mandate looms

"This is a hard decision, and we recognize that this may be late in coming to you," she wrote in an email.  

While the Department of Fish and Wildlife attributed the sudden change, in part, to "additional guidance from OFM," the Office of Financial Management provided FOX 13 with a document showing that official guidance for agencies had not been updated since Sept. 13 – a full week before DFW approved Otto’s religious accommodation.  

In the letter approving his accommodation, Otto was told he could keep his job and remain unvaccinated if he worked remotely, or wore and mask and maintained social distancing around others.  

Asked what happened between Sept. 20 and Sept. 29 to nullify the accommodation, DFW Public Affairs Director Carrie McCausland wrote 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 are 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."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Emails: State sought to make religious vaccine exemption 'as narrow as possible'

In short, the agency simply changed its mind.  

The sudden shift leaves the 11 impacted employees with just days to get vaccinated in order to reach full vaccination status by the governor’s Oct. 18 deadline. As of Thursday, a total of 286 DFW employees have not verified their vaccination status with the agency.

It is unclear whether employees in other state agencies saw a similar revocation of accommodations this week. OFM said it plans to update the latest vaccination numbers on Oct. 11.

Stay connected with FOX 13 News on all platforms:
DOWNLOAD: FOX 13 News and Weather Apps
WATCH: FOX 13 News Live
SUBSCRIBE: FOX 13 on YouTube
DAILY BRIEF: Sign Up For Our Newsletter
FOLLOW: Facebook Twitter Instagram