Lawmaker locked out of office at Washington state capital over vaccine rule

Lawmakers and legislative employees at the Washington state House must prove they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to access House facilities through early January, under a rule adopted by a House committee late last month.

The policy took effect Monday, the same day that a statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate deadline passed for many state workers and others to provide proof of vaccination — or an accommodated exemption — in order to keep their jobs. More than 1,800 state workers were either fired, resigned or retired due to the mandate.

Legislative staff and lawmakers are not covered by Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccination requirement, so policy for the House and Senate facilities are left up to leaders within each chamber. In the House, the Executive Rules Committee — which handles chamber policies — comprises four Democrats and three Republicans.

Bernard Dean, the chief clerk of the House, said the change in facility access is only for the 2021 legislative interim and said that no decisions have yet been made on whether to extend the policy to the legislative session that begins on Jan. 10.

Secretary of the Senate Brad Hendrickson said the Senate has not adopted a similar interim policy, but that decisions on building access and what format session will take in January are expected soon.

RELATED: 1,887 WA workers fired, leave jobs due to vaccine mandate

As of Wednesday, 26 lawmakers in the House had not submitted information to maintain their access to House facilities, but Dean stressed that the vast majority of House members and staff have been working remotely and were not yet seeking access to House offices.

"In general, this vaccination verification is not mandatory nor is it a condition of employment for members," Dean said in an email. "We have already re-established access for two members who have submitted the appropriate documentation since Monday’s deadline and expect that many more will do so in the coming weeks and months."

Dean said that the policy was finalized on Sept. 30, with the four Democratic members — Speaker Laurie Jinkins and Reps. Pat Sullivan, Lillian Ortiz-Self and Monica Stonier — voting for it and the three Republican lawmakers — House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox and Reps. Joel Kretz and Paul Harris — opposed.

RELATED: School district, parents await vaccines for youngest family members

In a video posted Tuesday, Republican Rep. Jim Walsh — a vocal critic of the governor who apologized this summer for wearing a yellow Star of David in protest of COVID-19 vaccine regulations — recorded himself standing outside of the House office building, showing that his access card to the building didn’t work because he hasn’t provided vaccine documentation to the House.

"This is not proper governance," he said in the video. "And locking members out of their offices if they don’t provide papers, well to me that’s just not American."

Jinkins said that the interim policy is to "make sure that staff and members on campus are safe."

"I get that people have different ideologies but as someone who has worked in public health for 30 years, ideology doesn’t beat a virus," she said.

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Meetings of the House Executive Rules Committee, which officials say are conducted mostly by phone and email, are not advertised in advance and are closed to the press. The Senate equivalent, the Facilities and Operations Committee, sends out alerts about upcoming agenda topics and allows members of the press to attend or call in to meetings.

Dean noted that the new interim policy has been posted on the House website for three weeks, and that staff and lawmakers have all received information about the interim rules multiple times.

He said that the House hopes to have session policies decided by early November, and that decisions related to how floor sessions or committee hearings will work will be made by the Executive Rules Committee. If there are changes to the House rules, which currently provide the ability of the committee to modify member access to the floor and House facilities, it would be put to a vote of the entire House.


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