Nearly 10 months into an unprecedented nationwide immunization campaign against COVID-19, the coronavirus pandemic is still raging in parts of the US. With only about 57% of the population, or 186 million Americans, fully vaccinated and more aggressive strains of COVID-19 like the Delta variant emerging, health officials worry that the virus remains strong enough to continue spreading throughout the country and hobbling the economy.
Against this backdrop, COVID-19 jabs are becoming a condition to keep your job. In July, the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the state of California and New York city and several major hospitals including the Mayo Clinic announced coronavirus vaccine mandates for front-line workers. In September, a White House order aimed at immunizing more than 100 million Americans mandated that virtually all federal workers and contractors receive vaccinations, while requiring vaccinations or weekly testing for private employers with 100 or more workers.
Washington state officials initially avoided such requirements, but have since mandated about 62,000 state employees, in addition to 13,500 in King County and 12,000 in the City of Seattle to prove they are fully inoculated against the virus by October 18, or else lose their jobs.
The requirements raise a number of questions. Here is everything you need to know about workplace vaccination requirements in Washington state.
Which employers require vaccinations in Washington state?
Currently, some COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Washington are required by state law, while others come directly from employer policies.
On August 9, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an order requiring most state executive branch employees, as well as public and private health care and long-term care workers to be fully vaccinated by October 18. On August 18, Inslee announced a vaccine requirement for employees working in K-12 schools, most childcare and early learning settings, and higher education institutions.
All contractors, volunteers and any other workers in these settings are also required to be vaccinated.
In addition to these government-mandated requirements, a number of private businesses throughout Washington have their own internal policies requiring proof of coronavirus vaccinations to continue working. Any employer can set its own vaccine requirements.
What is the legal basis of Washington’s vaccine mandates?
In February 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Inslee declared a state of emergency that allowed his office “to prohibit any activity that they believe should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain life, health, property or the public peace.” The subsequent orders issued in August 2021 are authorized by Inslee’s emergency powers.
Will coronavirus vaccinations become a general requirement for all workers in Washington?
Because there are no specific laws stopping employers from making the vaccine mandatory, it is largely up to employers in the state to make that decision. However, the laws around such requirements have fluctuated over time, according to Seattle employment attorney Tim Emery.
“There’s no question that an employer can require masks. There’s no question that an employer can require other safety precautions. But I don’t think there’s an easy answer in this situation for whether an employer can mandate a vaccine,” Emery told KIRO 7 news.
Can employees opt-out of workplace vaccine requirements?
There are several potential exemptions workers can cite in refusing to take the vaccine, including sincerely held religious beliefs, disability-related medical conditions or contractual obligations. Some employers may offer an alternative to vaccination, such as regular testing, but this is not an option in lieu of vaccination for employers that fall under Inslee’s mandate. The Washington state Insurance Commissioner has prohibited insurance companies from charging copays, fees or deductibles for COVID-19 testing, although some workers have received surprise medical bills.
Because Washington is an at-will employment state, employers can legally fire staff without cause, so employers may favor workers willing to vaccinate over those requesting to opt-out.
The Washington Department of Health (DOH) recommends you contact your employer for questions about opt-out policies.