WSDOT employee firings could create unsafe winter roads

Oct 26, 2021

As of October 18th, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is down 402 employees, largely due to WSDOT’s choice to move forward with firing staff to comply with the governor’s vaccine mandate.

Many employees submitted religious and medical exemptions to the vaccine, yet many who were approved were fired anyway. The agency received 572 religious and 88 medical exemption requests. Of the 572 religious exemptions, 455 were approved, but only 51 were accommodated (about 9% of total requests). Of the 88 medical exemptions, 83 were approved, but only 43 were accommodated (about 49% of total requests).

Accommodation simply means that an employer can make an adjustment or modification to the work environment that will allow an employee to continue working while complying with a sincerely-held religious belief or having a medical reason for not taking the vaccine. WSDOT has a notably lower approval rate for religious accommodation (9%) than the state as a whole, which accommodated 32% of such requests.

A breakdown of the firings by region, as well as retirements in lieu of vaccination, can be found here.

Now WSDOT says  “ongoing staffing challenges” due to those firings may create problems this winter as “some areas may not see the traditional 24-hour service, some roadways will not be plowed as often, and compact snow and ice will remain on roadways longer than a typical winter.”

This contradicts what the public was told by the Governor’s office as early as September:

  • September 5: “In an email, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said state officials are working on contingency plans if agencies lose key staff, but downplayed the notion that it will create big problems.”
  • October 11: “The state has been diligent in its contingency planning for scenarios after the October 18 vaccination deadline. The sky-high vaccination rates we’re seeing should settle any concerns. There will not be massive disruptions in state services.”

Now it is evident that WSDOT firings will create big problems after all. However, a transparent and clear plan for how the agency will deal with the loss of qualified employees, with over 40% of those fired being maintenance workers, has not materialized.

Instead, WSDOT leadership is busy encouraging staff not to feel “guilty about not accomplishing your normal workload,” “determine what activities may have to be delayed,” “focus on hope,” attend staff webinars on mental health, and step away “for short vacations.”

Having created a stressful and difficult situation, WSDOT leadership is admitting the impact is being felt by both staff and the public.

It is imperative that WSDOT and Governor’s office release their plan to deliver the services taxpayers have paid for and ensure roadways are clear and safe for travel. In the meantime, with winter around the corner, they suggest drivers get their vehicles prepared for winter weather, and stay informed of driving conditions.

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