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With deadline looming, Washington judge declines to block state employee vaccine mandate

Despite anecdotes from state workers about loss of income, a state court judge said Washington state's Covid vaccine mandate for public employees is not unjust across the board.

SEATTLE (CN) — Thousands of Washington state employees, contractors and health care workers — including firefighters, nurses and teachers — stand to lose their jobs after a Thurston County Superior Court judge declined to block a vaccine mandate that goes into effect Tuesday.

The attorney representing dozens of employees who have declined to get the Covid-19 vaccine on medical and religious grounds acknowledged the weight of the decision ahead of Judge Carol Murphy’s oral ruling.

“We are here at the eleventh hour,” said Nathan Arnold of Arnold & Jacobowitz PLLC.

Governor Jay 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 for more than 800,000 state workers.

Murphy’s decision to deny the employees’ motion for preliminary injunction at the state level came after a federal judge in Seattle declined to block the law on Friday.

The state 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 where the state capital is.

Though the state and federal claims differed slightly, both judges applied similar logic in their rulings: the plaintiffs could not show the mandate is unjust in all applications or that it would cause irreparable harm.

“The harm is financial only,” said Murphy, acknowledging concerning anecdotes from employees and the ways in which their lives might be altered. “Once again, these are many individual instances that may be litigated individually.”

As he did Friday in federal court, Arnold tried to argue Monday that the goal of Inslee’s mandate had already been achieved, citing vaccination statistics from state employees. He also warned of the potential for mass resignations among nurses, firefighters and others in essential public infrastructure roles that could lead to deaths among the public.

The state, represented by Zachary Pekelis Jones of Pacifica Law Group, countered again that vaccination data for most employees covered by the mandate is incomplete and that claims about resignations are “based on pure speculation and anecdotal claims of individual workers scattered around the state.”

More than 90% of state government employees had provided proof of vaccination as of last week, according to the state. About 88% of hospital staff statewide had also been fully vaccinated as of last week, while the remaining 12% included a mixed bag of those who were partially vaccinated, receiving accommodations or declining the vaccine, according to a survey from the Washington State Hospital Association.

The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction doesn’t plan to release vaccination rates among educators until the end of October but Superintendent Chris Reykdal estimated “well in excess” of 70% of teachers had been vaccinated in August, The Seattle Times reported.

Pekelis Jones said it will be tragic for people to lose their jobs over refusing the vaccine, but it would be more tragic still for employees in critical, public-facing roles to endanger the public they’re supposed to serve.

Ultimately, Murphy ruled the employees are unlikely to prevail because Inslee’s proclamation is likely a valid use of emergency powers granted to him by the Legislature.

After Friday’s decision in federal court, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson noted how his office has successfully defended Inslee’s pandemic orders against 42 legal challenges.

“Our office remains undefeated in these challenges to the governor’s public health measures,” he tweeted.

Further federal court hearings have yet to be set, as the judge said she wanted to see the outcome of the state court hearing before scheduling anything else. A trial in Thurston County Superior Court isn't anticipated before February.

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