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King County Metro will fast-track workers fired over vaccine mandate » Publications » Washington Policy Center

King County, SeattleOregon and other governments who made a COVID-19 vaccine mandate a condition of employment were all several months or more than a year ahead of Gov. Jay Inslee in rescinding the harmful policy. Inslee rescinded his vaccine mandate just last month.

Now King County Metro is ahead of Inslee in courting fired workers that could help get it out of a staffing shortage. Inslee should follow suit. Instead, his office says vaccine-terminated workers can reapply and participate in the same recruitment process for a job as anyone else. 

While Metro’s news is encouraging, not everyone will get on board. In fact, a union official told The Seattle Times he expects only 15% to 20% of workers to be interested. Most of the terminated Metro workers have moved, retired or found work elsewhere, says Cory Rigtrup, vice president of ATU Local 587. 

Financial considerations and new work will curtail rehirings, as will the knowledge that a government agency didn’t have public workers’ backs. A stipulation requiring returning workers to drop their right to claims against the department also won’t help. Fired workers need to carefully consider what is in their best interest. 

The mandate that King County employees be vaccinated lasted from October 2021 until February of this year. Of the nearly 300 county employees who lost work because of the mandate, 103 were from Metro, reports The Seattle Times. That made up about 2.5 percent of the agency’s workforce. About 90 of them, 50 operators and 17 mechanics, are eligible to return to work, spokesperson Jeff Switzer told the paper. 

Various transit agencies are struggling to recruit drivers and mechanics. A lack of drivers and the slow delivery of parts led Metro to decide to lower its service this fall. 

Service disruptions on Washington State Ferries have been frequent. Courting rehires could help there, too. Washington Policy Center (WPC) hopes the Metro action will start a trend and get government agencies back to reliable service levels. 

Under the agreement between Metro and the local chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union, former employees have 30 days to express interest in returning to work. If they release their right to a claim — and still meet the county’s training and licensing qualifications — they won’t need to reapply. They’ll get to return to their former jobs at the same pay grade with their leave accrual benefits. That might work for some people.

As mentioned above, Inslee’s policy for more than 2,000 terminated workers is not as helpful.

‘Permanent mandate’ 

The governor rescinded the vaccine mandate that he made “permanent” on May 11, aligning with the Biden Administration’s announcement that the national COVID-19 public emergency had ended. Now collective bargaining agreements need to be renegotiated. An FAQ about the now rescinded vaccine requirement says that if agreement is not reached to modify those agreements, “the parties will continue to adhere to the agreements.” 

The state Office of Financial Management will also engage in rulemaking to undo the civil service rule it put into place Nov. 4, 2022, under direction from Inslee. The rule required employees and all future employees to be vaccinated as a condition of state employment. 

What a mess. A permanent mandate never made sense and wasn’t going to age well. I just didn’t expect it to age so poorly within half a year. 

Metro is wise to stop punishing people it fired for no demonstrable public health benefit. The short staffing that exists, in part caused by the vaccine mandate, is hurting residents of King County. 

Vaccine mandates on employment never made sense, given what we knew about the vaccines’ strengths and limitations and that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people could spread, contract and get sick from COVID-19. The mandates are embarrassing policies from COVID-19 times. 

I hope more governments start agreeing with WPC that reinstatements are not only helpful for services that taxpayers rely on, but they are also the right thing to do. I hope they bring the added bonus of erasing some of the stigma that should have never been placed on people in our communities who chose not to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.    

If it makes financial sense for workers to return to their jobs and agree to drop their claims, King County will benefit.


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