Despite state mandate, city of ML passes motion to accommodate firefighters who are not fully vaxed
- Moses Lake, WA
The Moses Lake City Council voted Tuesday night 4-3 to pass a motion to find accommodations for three firefighters who, before the meeting on October 26, were trying to get their positions back after being laid off for not complying with Washington State's COVID-19 state and local government vaccine mandate.
During Tuesday night's council meeting, many arguments were flared from residents to the council members, city attorney, and the city manager. Councilmember Dean Hankins expressed his thoughts for not finding accommodations for the three firefighters and said,
"as long as those who don't have the vaccine do not have any patient contact, I'm ok with them fighting fires."
Councilmember Hankins expressed his decision to vote no for finding accommodations giving his experience in medicine for 40 years and close contact with a fire, or EMS personnel could jeopardize the patient's health on their way to get treated. Hankins also mentioned the importance of mask-wearing while on duty, stating that the mask protects others around you. While it gives the firefighter some protection, it's a much lower amount than someone fully vaccinated.
According to the City, they have, for the past several weeks, been working with the International Association of Firefighters (the union representing MLFD) through the compliance process regarding the vaccinations against COVID-19. Eight members of the Moses Lake Fire Departments requested exemptions from the vaccination requirement set by the state. According to a City, press release city staff went through an evaluation of the job duties to determine if the employees could be accommodated in an unvaccinated condition. The questions brought to the table were: Are they subject to state licenses? Are they in a place where they would provide direct patient care? Our firefighters live together 24-7. Is there a position where they don't provide direct patient care or have immediate interaction with staff that does? According to the City, the decision was made in agreement with fire chief Brett Bastian that no other accommodations were possible; this was not a solo call made by the City Manager.
During an exchange of arguments, many who chose to address the council mentioned it was the council, city attorney, and city manager's role to uphold and defend the constitution of the United States and Washington state. One resident expressed his thoughts stating the City is
"mandating people to submit to a force of injection, over the threat of loss of jobs, benefits, and pensions."
The city released an updated statement addressing the issue stating the following,
In response to the Governor’s vaccine mandate and in compliance with the deadlines set by the Governor’s proclamation, the City of Moses Lake worked through a process with the Moses Lake Firefighters who provide patient care in a health care setting (EMT and paramedic). Based on guidance received from the city’s insurer and legal counsel, and the fact that those positions require state certifications that mandate vaccinations, three positions faced separation with the City due to non-vaccination on October 18.
After review of accommodations granted by other jurisdictions, and additional review of the risk of the accommodations that could be granted, on October 26th, the City Council voted 4 – 3 to allow for the accommodation. This vote was based on confirmation from Fire leadership that the following accommodations could be met:
The positions will be permitted to continue to perform the duties stated in the job description, except for performing emergency medical aid activities including administering first aid.
The position will be required to wear an N95 mask at all times while on duty and while in the fire station, except when eating or sleeping.
The position will be required to eat and sleep in a closed office or room separate from the other on duty shift personnel.
Beginning of shift, position will be required to have a point of contact test for COVID-19 and may be required to submit to additional testing based upon the circumstances. The test will be initiated by the City at the City’s expense. Results can be obtained immediately.
The position will not be eligible for shift trades or overtime outside of the assigned shift.
The position will be assigned a designated station.
Upon confirmation from the Union, accommodation letters will be issued and employment will resume.
Many during the council meeting have flowed on Governor Inslee, calling his actions bogus, idiotic, and again unconstitutional both federally and state-wise. In a statement by The Office of Washington State Governor Jay Inslee stated,
"In response to the emerging COVID-19 threat, the Governor declared a state of emergency on February 29, 2020, using his broad emergency authority under RCW 43.06. More specifically, under RCW 43.06.220, after a state of emergency has been declared, the Governor may suspend statutes and prohibit any activity that he believes should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain life, health, property, or public peace. Under an emergency such as this, the Governor's paramount duty is to focus on the health and safety of our communities. In addition, the Governor is also a large employer and needs to meet the obligation to provide a safe workplace for government employees. This Proclamation answers both of those obligations. What if someone refuses to get vaccinated? All employees must be fully vaccinated by October 18, 2021, as a qualification of fitness for continued employment. Employees who refuse will be subject to non-disciplinary dismissal from employment for failing to meet the qualifications of the job. Those employees granted a reasonable accommodation for medical or religious reasons may not be subject to non-disciplinary dismissal. There may be continued or additional safety requirements for employees who are granted accommodations."
The Governor's office went on to say, "Firefighters are included whenever licensed by the state as an EMT or paramedic, or whenever performing medical functions in their official course of duty. The mandate does not cover administrative staff at fire stations because fire stations are not considered healthcare settings. Volunteer firefighters whose positions are restricted to emergency calls and do not perform medical services as a function of their position description are not covered by the Proclamation. If any firefighter is credentialed but not practicing as a function of their position or employment contract, they do not meet the definition of healthcare provider and are therefore not covered."
According to the press release provided by the City of Moses Lake, MLFD firefighters were initially accommodated, citing the exemptions they filed. The City of Moses Lake then decided not to accommodate the firefighters after closely reviewing each worker's proximity with one another at the local firehouses, along with the high possibility of jeopardizing patient care. In a press release, the City also stated that if the state's mandate is not followed and a claim is filed, no coverage will be given.
"Our insurer counseled the City that if we were to act against the mandates and put an unvaccinated employee in a situation where we received a claim, then there is no coverage. We are a city that needs every penny of our reserve funds to bolster up the infrastructure of our community, not in fighting lawsuits." The City stated in a press release.
"We are a municipality that is subject to state and federal laws that have been delivered regarding vaccine mandates. We have been working diligently with the International Association of Firefighters through the process of compliance," City Manager Allison Williams said. "In the end, we will have two firefighter/EMTs leave the City's employment and one Captain. The decision has been difficult, and we greatly appreciate the years of service the employees provided to the City. Firefighters have had an extremely difficult job during COVID providing care to the City's most vulnerable. We truly wish the situation was different. The City is also a recipient of various federal funding sources, so the federal mandate is being evaluated as well."