Starting Nov. 1, firefighters who were let go from South King Fire and Rescue because of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate will be allowed to come back to work.
The agency’s board of directors voted unanimously during their Sept. 27 meeting to authorize Fire Chief Dave Mataftin to let unvaccinated firefighters return beginning Nov. 1, which is the day after Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers is scheduled to end.
That means SKFR employees who were put on leave for choosing not to take the vaccine can return to their public-facing jobs. Those separated from the agency can also return as long as vacancies for their positions exist. (New employees will still need to receive a COVID vaccination, Mataftin said.)
Mataftin said he is confident it’s safe for those unvaccinated personnel to return.
“We have no concerns about undue risk to either patients or our firefighters,” Mataftin said. “If there were any concerns about that, I would not feel comfortable moving forward in doing this. But frankly, it’s the right thing to do by our employees, and it’s an incredibly safe thing to do. … I have always maintained that it is the right thing to do to bring these people back.”
Mataftin said that around six firefighters could come back to their old jobs at the department, if they so desire, as long as SKFR has vacancies for them to fill. The final number, and the process by which employees return, may change as the department irons out all the details, the chief said.
“The people that we’ve identified … will be given priority rehiring status because they are past employees of South King Fire, and [they left] only because of the vaccine mandate,” Mataftin said. “I believe I have an obligation to bring those people in if we have the ability and the room to do that.”
Dean Bastin, president of the IAFF Local 2024, said the firefighters union has reached out to SKFR for more information and details on how personnel will be brought back. Bastin said he’s waiting to learn more before staking out an opinion on the process.
“We are wanting to work with the department, administration, as well as the commissioners to come to an agreement and work together,” Bastin said.
Return to service
In August 2021, Inslee mandated that all state employees, educators, and most healthcare providers must become fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18, 2021, as a condition of employment — i.e., get vaccinated or lose their job.
Any licensed EMTs or paramedics, or firefighters who perform medical functions on the job, were included as healthcare workers. Because the majority of fire service calls are medical in nature, this meant most firefighters were subject to the mandate.
SKFR’s board of commissioners followed suit that summer with their own policy prohibiting unvaccinated firefighters from working directly with patients.
Overall, 13 firefighters were affected by the mandate at SKFR after the October deadline came and went, the department reported.
Four firefighters left the department at that time, one retired and three others received accommodations to continue working in positions that didn’t involve patient care. Five employees were on L&I time off for injury or sick leave, giving them a little more time before they had to face the decision.
In addition to the six potentially returning firefighters, there were others who left the department due to the mandate who have already taken fire service jobs elsewhere across the country. Mataftin doesn’t expect them to return.
The total amount of personnel that the department will actually hire back on isn’t set in stone. The board’s vote only allows separated firefighters to be rehired if vacancies for their positions exist.
”We’re going through the budgetary process to determine how many people we can bring in,” Mataftin said. “It’s not just COVID. [There were] planned hirings due to retirements, and that sort of thing. We’re not creating an artificial space for the potential return of these people. It has to do with the true number of vacancies we have, and that’s an undetermined number right now. So even though next week it all goes away, we may not be able to hire these people for some time. It’s not able to be quantified just yet.”
The rehiring at SKFR will be likely echoed at other fire agencies locally and across the state as the governor’s mandate comes to a close.
Going forward, the agency will still require new firefighters and other staff to show proof of vaccination, Mataftin said. That applies to only the basic series of shots — two doses of Pfizer or Moderna or one dose of Johnson & Johnson — and does not include boosters. The requirement is consistent with other neighboring agencies in the Zone 3 area, which covers South King County, Mataftin said.
The vast majority — more than 98% — of the department is currently vaccinated, Mataftin said. About 74% of SKFR’s uniformed members were vaccinated in by August of last year, and that number had grown to 91% of the department by the time the mandate went into effect last year, The Mirror previously reported.
Mandating the COVID-19 vaccine has been a sensitive and controversial issue, requiring officials to weigh personal freedoms against public safety.
The purpose and primary benefit of the three main vaccines in the United States is to reduce the risk of serious illness and death from the coronavirus. Research indicates that vaccinated people who get sick have similar viral load levels as the unvaccinated and can still easily get others sick. Vaccination — like previous infections — likely reduces the risk of transmission, according to the John Hopkins University of Medicine, but that would be an accessory benefit.
Some firefighters and community members criticized the board last year for forbidding unvaccinated firefighters from providing patient care. Staff loss from the mandate reduced daily staffing by two positions at the time, temporarily taking one aid car out of service, according to the department.
Exemptions to Inslee’s mandate were allowed for medical or religious reasons, but for some Washington firefighters, it was a moot point. Not all agencies were able to find accommodations for each of their employees even when they could grant their exemptions.
Inslee began rescinding emergency proclamations in April this year and announced in September an end to the state of emergency by the end of October.
Local firefighters have been providing their best care since the pandemic started, both before and after vaccines were available, Mataftin said, and he said that will continue.
In the beginning of the pandemic, “[we] and all the other fire departments in the region were responding to a very lethal disease,” he said. “These firefighters we’re speaking about here, and the other firefighters, were responding to those calls in the South King response area without any vaccination. They were providing excellent customer service, and there was no disease transmission between the patients and the firefighters. [They] were hailed as heroes for being out on the frontlines of a very scary disease.”
Inslee’s state of emergency ends Monday, though the vaccine mandate will remain for most Washington state agencies. But for education and healthcare workers — like firefighters — it will now be up to individual agencies to decide whether mandates are appropriate.
Mataftin said that SKFR’s board of commissioners has taken the right steps over the pandemic — both in setting up an internal vaccine mandate for existing employees following Inslee’s, and in rescinding that internal mandate as the state’s mandate lapses.
“I believe they have done yet again the right thing,” he said. “These are decisions made after a great deal of debate, and this is no different.”