New hires at the city of Port Orchard will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 after the city council voted this Tuesday to adjust its employment policy.
By a vote of 5-2, the council approved the policy change that would require new hires to receive at least one dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine before being hired, and receive the second dose within 30 days of being hired, unless approved for a medical or religious exemption. Councilmembers Shawn Cucciardi and Fred Chang voted against the change.
In the discussion before the vote, Councilmember Scott Diener said one of the council’s guiding principles is to ask whether it’s "raising the bar."
“I think that we are, because we are considering [a policy change] that would protect not only the people that work in the city, but also people in the public that are in contact with those workers,” he said.
Referring to public comment earlier in the meeting that claimed that such a requirement was illegal, Diener said, “The city council owes the public its best decision making possible and so it’s not necessarily wise to heed the advice of unlicensed attorneys, or even licensed attorneys, who provide comment. We do owe it, however, to the public to listen to our experts and our licensed attorney who can give opinions as to risk. And then we each take an understanding of what we believe that risk to be and we vote upon that. And I think that given that there are exemptions that are allowed, given the landscape of public and legal decisions that have been made across the state so far, that the risk is low.”
Councilmember John Clauson emphasized that the requirement did not apply to existing employees.
“This is not a situation where our existing folks are being told they must do something or they’re going to lose their job,” he said. “This is simply presenting standards for new employees, people who haven’t made the commitment yet and can come in with their eyes open and understand what are the job requirements, and we’re adding to those job requirements to at least have your first vaccine [dose].”
Clauson said he would like to see an incentive in place for existing employees to encourage them to get vaccinated.
“Not a requirement, but as Councilmember Cucciardi brought up the last time we talked about this … I guess it’s a better way to deal with it, doing more carrots than sticks, and I think if we were to do an incentive program, that’s a carrot.”
Councilmember Bek Ashby said that when the council had previously considered the requirement, she had voted against it.
“Since that time, additional data has become available to us and my concerns regarding risk and the legality of what we’re doing have been answered adequately for me,” she said. “And so at this time I will be supporting this motion.”
Councilmember Shawn Cucciardi said, “I am going to stay with my original vote [against the policy change], only because there is new advice that will be coming to us very soon. As we’re all aware, OSHA has already submitted their kind of guidance up to the Office of Management and Budget and we’re expected to hear what that’s going to look like very soon, and I just personally feel more comfortable just trying to look at this kind of holistically and doing it all at once. And because I think that new information is forthcoming, I prefer to wait.”
Cucciardi was referring to a rule drafted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — the federal agency tasked with creating and enforcing workplace safety standards — that would require employers with 100 or more employees to require that their employees be vaccinated. President Joe Biden ordered the agency to draft the rule in September, and on Oct. 12, the agency submitted the text of the proposed rule to the Office of Management and Budget for review, bringing it one step closer to enactment. It’s expected that there will be legal challenges to the new rule; Arizona has already sued the Biden administration over the mandate even though it hasn’t gone into effect yet.
Councilmember Jay Rosapepe noted that he had previously voted against the policy change because he felt he needed more information about it.
“[If] we would have had some of this 30 days ago, I definitely would have voted to move forward with it,” he said. “I don’t feel we can wait any longer. We will continue to wait and the wheels of the government sometimes move too slowly, so I’ll fully support this.”
Diener jumped back into the discussion to point out that the city wouldn’t be alone in implementing such a requirement.
“We’re not breaking new ground here,” he said. “This is old information now, but King County, junior taxing districts, fire districts, the city of Issaquah, Thurston and Snohomish transit, and by now other, I’m sure, agencies and organizations have adopted something similar. I understand there are a couple other cities in the county that are doing this administratively, and so this is not something where we are kind of spearheading or leading a legal issue into Washington’s future. So I feel comfortable with what we’re doing, and I will be supportive of it as well.”