WSDOT refused emergency snowplow help due to vaccine mandate
On January 11th after a significant snow storm, Kittitas County officials offered to help the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) clear snow on state roads that go through the county’s communities. WSDOT, which has a staffing shortage and is actively trying to hire maintenance crew, declined. The agency noted they could not accept assistance “due to Kittitas County not mandating the COVID-19 vaccination for County employees.”
The county said in a press release that the snowfall on January 5th and 6th “resulted in the closure of Interstate 90 and Highway 97 for three days, causing freight deliveries to be delayed, travel across the State of Washington impossible, and access to services significantly impacted.” The Governor’s vaccine mandate for state employees resulted in the firing of over 400 employees at WSDOT, with 48 employees “no longer working to support the state maintenance and snow removal efforts in Kittitas County.” The county had signed an interlocal agreement with WSDOT in late 2021, which essentially put them on call to help WSDOT should they need assistance at any point.
Several state roads run through Kittitas County, including I-90, Highway 10 and State Route 903 through towns and other areas that are important to the safety of the people who live there. In order for county snowplows to be deployed on state roads, they need permission from WSDOT. It makes sense that the county would offer to help the agency – and in turn support their residents. WSDOT’s refusal, given the statewide impact of the snow storm and subsequent closures of all mountain passes, is shocking.
We spoke with Commissioner Cory Wright, who said,
“WSDOT frontline operators and management this past week have been busting their rear ends trying to keep highways clear with limited staff. They’ve worked around the clock and have done everything in their power. The county stands by to assist at any point. We signed the mutual aid agreement in late 2021 in recognition that their limited resources would require county assistance. We still stand ready, regardless of their vaccination status. Our snowplow vehicles have one operator – there are no passengers – so the bigger risk is drivers and residents and emergency responders trying to navigate these roads.”
Commissioner Wright also noted he was told by a staff member at WSDOT that “county administration could sign a blanket declaration [that employees were vaccinated] to bypass the mandate and get these vehicles going” and he declined, because “that would not be accurate.” He added, “We weren’t going to sign anything that wasn’t truthful.”
It seems the WSDOT employee the Commissioner spoke to recognized that the agency needed help and that the mandate as it applied to maintenance crew had more to do with appearances than public safety. The impact of the mandate made no sense for the situation.
Commissioner Laura Osiadacz echoed Commissioner Wright’s frustration “that the state of Washington is putting political differences before the safety and welfare of the people.” She said, “the fact that help is being refused when our public works department has worked incredibly hard to come up with their own internal policies to maintain a safe workplace while allowing our personnel the opportunity to choose if the vaccine is the right medical decision for themselves – it’s almost unbelievable. Especially since our operators are inside a piece of equipment by themselves trying to help with clearing our road networks.”
The intent of the county sharing this information with the public is to increase public awareness of what is going on. “We realize the state of Washington is not going to be pleased with us making this announcement, but government does need to be transparent, and if there are limitations, people need to know why," she said.
WSDOT issued a response about declining the county’s help, seemingly grasping at several explanations. They said that the county’s help wasn’t an “option” due to the mandate, but also suggested the county didn’t have the proper equipment needed to clear snow. They added that they “secured a private contractor to clear the roadway with work beginning Wednesday morning, January 12.”