Over the last few months, employers have steadily worked to encourage workers to get vaccinated, all while the Delta variant has forced some companies to delay back-to-office plans. Some businesses are offering paid perks—like Walmart, which is giving store employees an extra $150 to get vaccinated—while others are looking into potentially charging unvaccinated workers extra fees for their health insurance. But some employers are taking it a step further, telling their workers they must be vaccinated or risk losing their jobs.
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On Aug. 18, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new policy requiring employees working in K-12, most childcare and early learning, and higher education to be vaccinated as a condition of employment. This includes educators, school staff, coaches, bus drivers, and volunteers, and applies to all those working at public, charter, or private schools.
“As our school buildings reopen this fall for in-person learning, vaccination of our school employees will be a key mitigation measure to protect the health and safety of our students, staff, and families,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said in a statement. “Our ability to maintain continued in-person learning without major COVID-related disruptions will depend on low virus transmission within our schools.”
Employees working in these areas have until Oct. 18 to be fully vaccinated. There are limited exceptions for legitimate medical reasons and sincerely held religious beliefs, but for the most part, “individuals who refuse to get vaccinated will be subject to dismissal,” according to the new policy.
“It has been a long pandemic, and our students and teachers have borne their own unique burdens throughout,” Inslee said in a statement. “This virus is increasingly impacting young people, and those under the age of 12 still can’t get the vaccine for themselves. We won’t gamble with the health of our children, our educators and school staff, nor the health of the communities they serve.”
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Other states have issued similar mandates. California, for example, is requiring all teachers to be vaccinated or get tested weekly for COVID. But Washington’s policy is by far the most stringent, as “there will be no test out option” for educators and school staff. “We are well past the point where testing is enough to keep people safe,” Inslee said. “We’ve tried it. It has not been adequate for the task at hand.”
The state has already announced a mask mandate for inside schools, and with the new vaccination policy, Inslee also extended the state’s indoor mask mandate to include vaccinated individuals, effective Aug. 23.
“We have seen over the last year how widespread masking also saves lives by reducing infection,” he said. “I know this will frustrate some vaccinated folks who thought they wouldn’t have to do this anymore. There are not enough people vaccinated. The result is the explosive growth of a much more infectious strain, the Delta variant, and its increasingly [concerning] impacts on people of all ages.”
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