Unvaxxed firefighter medics sue SRFR district in federal court for back pay after district put them on leave without pay saying they pose a public COVID-19 safety risk when unvaccinated
MONROE — Eight unvaccinated firefighters at Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue who were given just the option to go on an unpaid leave of absence unless they got vaccinated have sued the agency in federal court for back pay during their absence and for discrimination because their religious exemptions were not accommodated with regular testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) instead.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s requirement that health care providers, such as fire medics, either be fully vaccinated or obtain a religious or medical exemption went into effect Oct. 18, 2021.
Each of the firefighters applied for, and obtained, religious exemptions at the district. However, the district wrote that it was unable to give a reasonable accommodation that lets them perform their full duties while unvaccinated which didn’t risk infecting patients or coworkers or create a hardship on the district.
In an arrangement negotiated by the union, unvaccinated workers were allowed to use up their personal leave time, and then had the option to go on a one-year leave of absence without pay or benefits.
Seven months later, the situation changed. The accommodations were granted after the district took further review and as the pandemic morphed. The fire district determined the firefighters could be accommodated with masking in public areas, frequent negative COVID-19 tests and social distancing. They were allowed to go back to work June 1, 2022 and would restart their employee benefits.
They say they should not have been put on unpaid leave to begin with.
The eight are David Peterson, Norm Peterson II, Beau Watson, Jay Stickney, Evan Merritt, Riley Korf, Ryan Stupey and Kevin Gleason. Each declined the coronavirus vaccine on religious opposition, their attorney wrote.
The district initially determined it couldn’t give accommodations for a few reasons: One is that unvaccinated crews cannot socially distance when in a fire engine or aid car, and another is that the district couldn’t guarantee unvaccinated firefighters would stay masked at all times.
The district faced outside pressures, too: For one, its insurance carrier said if an unvaccinated employee transmitted COVID-19 to a patient who died, the insurer wouldn’t cover it, posing a liability. The state Department of Corrections also banned unvaccinated emergency personnel from doing on-site work at its campuses such as the Monroe Correctional Complex, posing a potential manpower problem for Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue, which has the DOC contract for fire and medical services.
The group is represented by the Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit religious faith legal defense organization.
The case was filed Nov. 22 in Western Washington District Court. Judge Thomas Zilly is presiding.
Preceding the lawsuit, the firefighters approached the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to investigate and adjudicate. The EEOC made no determination on most cases. Some had their files dismissed for being too late to file complaints to the EEOC.
As of Dec. 1, Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue had
not filed its defense response in court.
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