by Paul Faruq Kiefer
(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
On the evening of Thursday, Sept. 23, a coalition of Seattle City employee unions reached a tentative agreement with the City of Seattle about the enforcement of the City’s new mandatory vaccination policy. The agreement, which outlines rules for vaccination exemptions and offers paid time off for vaccinated employees, now needs the approval of both the unions’ membership and the City Council. Union members will vote on the agreement this weekend.
On Friday, Sept. 24, both Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and City labor leadership heralded the agreement as a key victory in the City’s fight to control the spread of COVID-19. Karen Estevenin, the executive director of PROTEC17, which represents employees across multiple City departments, told PubliCola the union coalition didn’t object to the vaccine mandate itself but wanted to give City employees a hand in shaping how the mandate will play out in their workplace.
“One of the key benefits of having a union is that workers have a voice on policy changes that affect their workplaces and their livelihoods,” she said. “By negotiating the terms of the vaccine mandate, we wanted to ensure that this was a fair, transparent, and equitable policy for all City employees.”
Behind the scenes, labor organizers convinced nearly every public employee union to buy into the agreement, including the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), which represents lieutenants and captains in the Seattle Police Department (SPD). One key holdout is the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and is still negotiating its own arrangement with the City. Public Safety employee unions have negotiating options that other public sector unions lack, so it is not uncommon for SPOG and other unions representing Public Safety employees to bargain separately from the larger coalition.
The agreement, which the mayor’s office announced publicly on Friday, will guarantee a floating vacation day in the next year for all employees who submit proof by Oct. 5 that they are fully vaccinated or that they will be vaccinated by the Oct. 18 deadline. Vaccinated employees will also receive another 80 hours of paid leave to deal with COVID-related emergencies, including recovering from vaccination or taking care of newly vaccinated family members.
As negotiations wound to a close this week, the coalition ran into two sticking points: whether to replenish the sick-day allowance for employees who took time off work to get vaccinated earlier this year and whether the mandate would cover City contractors. The agreement reached on Thursday will allow employees to restore any sick leave they used to receive the vaccine before Durkan announced the mandate, and it specifies that the City will apply the vaccine mandate to any contractors and vendors who work on City construction sites or in close proximity with City staff.
While the union coalition initially floated the possibility of vaccination bonuses, negotiators scrapped the idea when they weren’t able to nail down a funding source. The City Council, which typically plays an advisory role in union negotiations and controls the City’s purse strings, did not have a chance to weigh in before negotiations ended on Thursday.
The agreement also lays out rules for employees seeking exemptions from the vaccine mandate. According to the agreement, the Seattle’s Human Resources Department will be responsible for approving or denying exemption requests, which the City will anonymize to prevent screeners from making decisions based on personal biases. Employees who receive an exemption will still need to wait for their department to offer accommodations, which could include working from home indefinitely. If a department decides that it can’t reasonably accommodate an employee who receives an exemption, that employee could still lose their job.
On the State level, the Washington State Patrol has approved more than 200 applications for religious exemptions but hasn’t yet offered accommodations to any of those employees, which could leave officers with the choice between losing their jobs or giving up their exemption.
In Seattle, employees who decide to give up their exemption and get vaccinated will have a grace period after Oct. 18 to receive their first and second shots. Because of concerns about department-to-department discrepancies in offering accommodations, City employees whose unions signed on to the agreement will be allowed to bring a union representative to any meetings with their department management to discuss accommodations.
The vast majority of applicants cite religious reasons for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. A much smaller number have requested exemptions for medical reasons, including ongoing chemotherapy or a recent COVID-19 diagnosis (the CDC currently recommends that unvaccinated people who test positive for the virus wait until they are no longer infectious before receiving the vaccine). According to Shaun Van Eyk, a co-chair of the union coalition and a representative for PROTEC17, most employees with medical exemptions plan to eventually receive the vaccine.
The agreement with the City union coalition comes on the heels of a similar agreement between King County and a coalition of unions representing County employees. That agreement, which King County Executive Dow Constantine announced on Wednesday, Sept. 22, does not extend to the King County Police Officers Guild, which represents the rank-and-file of the King County Sheriff’s Office. Like its Seattle counterpart, SPOG, the guild is negotiating its own agreement with the County.
Paul Faruq Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.
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