Religious exemption not enough to save jobs as vaccine mandate looms

State workers under a fast-approaching deadline to get the COVID-19 vaccine by October 18 are learning that not even a genuine religious exemption can save their careers.  

While Governor Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate allows for both religious and medical exemptions, such exemptions are subject to accommodation.  

"All requests for a reasonable accommodation based on a sincerely held religious belief will be given full and appropriate consideration," said Mike Faulk, press secretary for Governor Inslee. "It is also important to understand that even when a person has a sincerely held religious objection to a requirement of their job, their employment may be terminated if the employer is unable to reasonably accommodate that worker." 

Such is the case for a veteran trooper of the Washington State Patrol, who found out this week that he cannot continue to patrol the roadways unvaccinated.  

The trooper, a 15-year veteran who asked to have his name withheld, was granted a religious exemption based on a "strongly held religious belief," only to be told that his option is to be reassigned.

"Performing the essential functions of your position unvaccinated poses a threat to the health or safety of yourself and others in the workplace," read the September 7 letter from the WSP’s Human Resources Division.

"After carefully reviewing your job classifications, essential functions, and working environment, we have determined the only reasonable accommodation we can offer is the possibility of a reassignment." 

The letter requested a copy of the trooper’s most up-to-date resume, noting that while efforts would be made to find him a new job, there are no promises.

"Reassignment options are limited to vacant, funded positions for which the employee seeking an accommodation meets the position’s qualifications. In the reassignment process, we will not eliminate an essential function or duty of the potential job, create a new position, displace another employee, or offer you a promotion. While we will try to assign you to a position that is considered lateral to your current position, please understand that positions at a lower salary range and/or job class will be considered as well."

"The WSP does not know entirely the impacts this mandate will have on our agency workforce, and likely will not have a full realization until the October deadline timeframe," said Chris Loftis, communications director for the WSP. "We will not speculate as to the number at this point but with the amount we invest in recruitment, training, and equipping, any loss of personnel would be a tragedy, especially in light of our already FTE (Full Time Employee) shortfalls. Not to mention the loss of friends and colleagues we care about and respect deeply." 

Loftis said the very nature of the profession requires the agency to follow Governor Inslee’s orders.  

"We are bound by law and our oaths to follow his legal directives as Governor and we will do so as we always do, with fidelity and grace," he said.  

The Washington State Patrol is not the only law enforcement agency faced with looming impacts of the mandate. The Seattle Police Department, which has already seen a record number of officers leave the agency over the past 18 months, is also under a mandate.  

While no official estimate has been released, a source within SPD told Q13 News that a survey of union members revealed as many as 200 officers were unvaccinated.  

"It is actually impossible for anyone to claim – beyond mere speculation – that they know how many SPD officers have been vaccinated," said Kelsey Nyland, a spokesperson for Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. "That’s because our Vaccination Confirmation Form – which is the sole tool for confirming the vaccination rate of City workers – has not been distributed yet." 

Mayor Durkan has remained optimistic that remaining holdouts will get the vaccine before October 18, but has repeatedly declined to say whether she would follow through with firing officers who do not.  

RELATED: Seattle mayor defends vaccine mandate, refuses to say whether she'll fire officers who don't comply

"The police officers that I know, that I’ve talked to, that I’ve worked with over a career – they believe in service," she said in an August 10 interview. "And those people will step up and do the right thing. I truly believe they will." 

Meanwhile, as law enforcement agencies across the state face staffing shortages, some smaller departments are hoping to attract good candidates who are pushed out of jobs elsewhere – even those who were fired for refusing the vaccine.  

"We would definitely consider them," said Marysville Police Chief Erik Scairpon, whose department is not under a mandate.  

Marysville PD already hired three former Seattle officers who left during the city’s controversial defunding debate in 2020.  

"The amount of policing experience that they bring with them, their commitment to community policing, has just really been a phenomenal add," he said. "When we’re able to pull somebody from another department, even a larger jurisdiction, it can really help us out with that experience factor."

He said his agency has 11 vacancies on a force budgeted for 76 commissioned officers and is offering up to $20,000 for qualified in-state lateral transfers. However, he said he is unsure whether the lateral bonus will apply to officers fired from other agencies over the vaccine.  

"We’d have to evaluate that," he said. "I haven’t established a prohibition, if you will, for that." 

Chief Scairpon said he is vaccinated and encourages his employees to get vaccinated, but believes his officers should make an informed choice on their own. He said around 75% of officers there are fully vaccinated.  

After an article was published in the Everett Herald underscoring his willingness to hire unvaccinated officers, Chief Scairpon said he received a call from a concerned community member who wanted to know why.  

"We have a public safety mandate. I have a mission as the chief of police to make sure that our community remains safe," he said.  

"I look at the bigger picture for law enforcement. We have about 11,000 police officers in various capacities across the state. That is the lowest level per capita of staffing in the nation. If overnight we were to lose 900 officers, which isn’t beyond the realm of reasonable doubt, I would be really concerned about public safety."

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