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Tuesday, July 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Federal judge declines to block Washington state vaccine mandate for state workers

“I don’t think I’m shocking anyone that there might be an appeal here,” said an attorney representing Washington state employees, health care workers and educators who oppose Gov. Jay Inslee's vaccine mandate.

SEATTLE (CN) — Washington state Governor Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate for public sector employees, educators and health care workers will go into effect Monday after a federal judge in Seattle declined to block it during a hearing Friday.

Inslee’s mandate — enacted in August in reaction to the rising Delta variant — is among the strictest in the nation because it does not allow a weekly testing option for workers who refuse the vaccine. The governor’s office cited persistent outbreaks despite testing and the significant cost and effort to sustain the model long-term as reasons for a hard mandate.

The mandate applies to more than 60,000 state workers, almost 92% of whom are vaccinated, as well as an estimated 400,000 health care workers and 100,000 teachers, according to testimony by the state.

A Thurston County Superior Court judge will hear oral arguments on a motion for a temporary restraining order Monday morning in a state lawsuit with a similar set of plaintiffs. That lawsuit was originally filed in Walla Walla County, but a judge granted the Inslee administration’s request to have the case heard in Thurston County.

A nearly identical set of employees then filed the federal lawsuit in Seattle “as a last resort for legal relief” with the vaccination deadline looming, noting attempts to obtain a hearing in state court that were "stymied" by Inslee’s administration.

The 100 plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit — including state troopers, prison correctional officers and ferry workers — claim the mandate is beyond the scope of Inslee’s authority as governor, infringes on the free exercise of religion and discriminates against people with medical reasons for declining the vaccine.

Arguing for a temporary restraining order to block the mandate from going into effect Monday, plaintiffs' attorney Nathan Arnold said the public would be harmed by numerous resignations in critical, overburdened areas, such as hospitals and fire departments, and that those who lost their jobs would be irreparably harmed by not being able to pursue their chosen professions.

“I don’t think I’m shocking anyone that there might be an appeal here,” Arnold said during his initial statement in court.

Arnold also pointed to the rising percentage of state employees who are vaccinated — up from less than 50% at the beginning of September — as a reason to block the mandate because the state’s goal of 93% vaccination to prevent the spread of Covid-19 should be reached next week.

“At this point, additional continued enforcement is punitive, and it is arbitrary and capricious,” he said in court.

The state, represented by Zachary Pekelis Jones of Pacifica Law Group, countered that Arnold’s assertion about mass resignations is mere speculation informed by anecdotes. And the state’s response to the lawsuit said employees who lose their jobs would be able to recover monetary damages from wage loss.

Further, he said Arnold’s claim regarding vaccination rate goal doesn’t consider vaccination data for educators and health care workers, which the state doesn’t have. Rather, the rising vaccination rates among state employees is proof that the mandate is effective.

“Vaccination requirements are not new in this county,” said Jones, alluding to numerous occasions when courts have upheld vaccine mandates.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein denied the employees’ motion to temporarily block the mandate from the bench, acknowledging such a ruling is less detailed and carries less authority, but she noted she was only assigned the case 48 hours before and had received a flurry of filings ahead of the hearing.

Rothstein agreed with the state that the mandate has been shown to be effective in guarding public health and terminated employees could seek monetary damages after the fact.

She also said Inslee’s proclamation was well within the emergency powers granted to him by the Legislature and that the employees’ primary concerns are with the lack of accommodations on an individual basis.

“It just points out that this is not the time to deal with individual lack of accommodations,” said Rothstein, adding the employees would be best off pursuing their claims individually through administrative and other judicial avenues.

After delivering her ruling, Rothstein acknowledged the state court hearing regarding the mandate on Monday and suggested waiting for that judge’s opinion prior to planning the next phases of the federal case. She asked to hold another hearing within 21 days.

The state’s attorney, Jones, said he expected a ruling out of the state court Monday. Arnold said he plans to forge ahead in the federal case regardless of the outcome.

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson celebrated the victory on social media.

"We have successfully defended the governor’s orders against 42 legal challenges," he said in a tweet. "Our office remains undefeated in these challenges to the governor’s public health measures."

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Categories / Courts, Government, Health

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