ICWA News and Views

Weekly Stories about What’s Happening in Washington State and Stories of Interest to Washingtonians

by Gerald Braude

In this post:

  • Links to Radio Show references
  • The Consequences of the Kirkland COVID-19 Shot Mandates

September 30 Episode of An Informed Life Radio Notes and Links

Guest: Melissa Schreibfeder

Guest: Anaheed Jackson

The Consequences of the Kirkland COVID-19 Shot Mandates

The Kirkland firefighters staffing crisis began with a December 2021 letter from Mayor Penny Sweet in which she wrote,

“First off, I want to express my gratitude that the large majority of you have chosen to be vaccinated and report it.  However, I cannot express how very disappointed I am in those of you refusing to do so.   I realize that it is a choice but as someone who spent a career in healthcare it is one that I would expect care givers to embrace.” 

She ended the letter with the following: 

“As a public servant and representative of the citizens of Kirkland, working with my peers on the council, the last two years have been incredibly difficult, as I know you are all aware.  Every policy decision we have made with management has been to assure the safest and most science driven outcomes that we possibly can.  The decision, moving forward with separating from unvaccinated firefighters is one of those.”

According to a KIRO News story on July 6, 2022, the COVID-19 shot mandate resulted in twelve terminations or retirements of Kirkland firefighters and in turn a staffing crisis.  

Understaffed and overworked: Kirkland firefighters say the department is in crisis – KIRO 7 News Seattle

In the article, Captain Justin Becker said that for the last two weeks, he had worked 260 hours straight. Typically, in that same time, he’d have logged only eighty hours.

“I feel like we’re in a staffing crisis of the likes I’ve never seen in my almost twenty years here at the fire department,” said Becker. “When we firefighters … are that sleep-deprived, there’s a tremendous risk to this city of having someone … drive a 60-pound apparatus down the street.”

In the KIRO News video, vice president of the union, Evan Hurley, told the city council, “Morale is at an all-time low. We’ve had some lows before, but this is as bad as it’s ever been.”

Kirkland Fire Chief Joe Sanford disagrees on the severity of the problem. Nevertheless, when asked in the video whether the COVID-19 shot mandate has played a role in people leaving King County and going elsewhere, Sanford replied, “Yes, it has.”

Kirkland resident Katherine Freire , who is also an activist for Informed Choice Washington,  referred to the KIRO News story when she addressed the Kirkland City Council during its monthly meeting on July 19, 2022. Katherine told the council that the Kirkland firefighters, “Have been asking month-after-month for your assistance, your intervention. You heard from three concerned citizens and ten firefighters who desperately are seeking a solution. “ 

She finished her address to the council by saying, “What impact have your inactions had to our firefighters health, their mental health, their safety? What impact does this have toward our community? What are you waiting for you? You guys have spent$ $1.2 million on overtime; you’ve completely blown out your budget. Lastly, I say enough is enough. People, we need to start standing up. The city council does not care what you think. They think they can wait you out.”

After presentations by Joe Sanford and City Manager Kurt Triplett, Council Member Toby Nixon responded to Katherine Freire’s accusations: 

“We have had multiple people come to us over the past few weeks and accuse of inaction as though we actually had the ability to take action. The fact is state law prohibits us from taking action. He then read a section from RCW35A.13.080 about city manager interference by council members in which neither the city council nor its committees or members are allowed to give orders to the city manager, not publicly or privately. “So it is a question of the council member not breaking the law,” Nixon said.

At the next Kirkland City Council meeting on August 3, 2022, Katherine Freire responded to Nixon’s RCW reference by referring to the Kirkland city manager job description. “The job is to implement the city council’s policies by overseeing the management,” she said. “The city manager serves as a chief advisor to the city council and is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of city council.  So, you see, Mr. Nixon, there is something that you can do. You just choose not to, and it’s a total failure to our firefighters.”

Freire went on to say, “Fire chief, Joe, you ought to resign for the shame you have brought upon this magnificent house where my long line of history is tied to the firefighters. You have left your men and women hanging and for what?  Because everyone here is complacent.  Can anyone of you show me what law gave you the power to fire these brave men and women who chose to exercise body autonomy.  No one wants to stop and ask the obvious question: Where is the leadership?” 

At the same meeting, other Kirkland residents also questioned the leadership of the city council. Susan Pederson said the following: 

“We are really at a turning point in which the rights of others have been taken away  and a lack of action has caused harm to our first-responders and their families. The lack of silence and inaction has shown indifference.  So you have to have courage, and we need to have courage to stand up and set the course correctly and stop the mandates and bring back those who have been forced out.”

In a September 2, 2022 letter to acknowledge receipt of correspondence that the terminated firefighters had sent to each of the city council members, Kirkland City Manager Kurt Triplett again referred to RCW35A.13.080. The letter said that the statute, “Prohibits councilmembers from directing the city manager to appoint or remove anyone from city employment.” Triplett went on to state, “The city manager and fire chief look at whether you and other unvaccinated firefighters could be accommodated and determined that it was an undue hardship to the city to provide a reasonable accommodation given the health, safety, operational, financial, and administrative  burdens and impacts, and thereafter the city manager and fire chief to separate you and other unvaccinated firefighters.” 

Katherine Freire had ended her address to the city council by saying that lawsuits would be forthcoming, and Triplett’s letter also addressed this. “You have filed a charge with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission against the city alleging religious discrimination based on your separation, and we have responded to that charge and are awaiting further action or determination by the commission,” the letter read. “The city is continuing to respect the governor’s vaccination mandate, which has to date been upheld in court in response to various legal challenges.” 

On September 27, 2022, the terminated Kirkland firefighters received a determination from Isabel Jeremiah, who investigated the case for the Seattle Field Office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The essence of the determination comes from the following paragraph: 

“The evidence obtained and reviewed to date has been analyzed consistent with the legal standards of proof required to establish a violation of the laws that the EEOC enforces. Specifically, the evidence shows the employer was not able to provide you with a religious accommodation because doing so would have caused an undue hardship. The Supreme Court has held that requiring an employer to bear more than a ‘de minimis,’ or minimal, cost to accommodate an employee’s religious belief is an undue hardship. Costs to be considered include not only direct monetary costs, but also the burden on the conduct of the employer’s business—including, in this instance, the risk of the spread of COVID-19 to other employees or to the public. Additionally, because you were not vaccinated and there is no reasonable religious accommodation the employer could have granted absent an undue hardship, the employer had no option but to discharge you.”   

Jeremiah’s core argument is that the undue hardship is “the burden on the conduct of the employee’s business—including, in this instance, the risk of the spread of COVID-19 to other employees or to the public.” 

At the August 3 Kirkland City Council meeting, Susan Pederson had aptly addressed the fallacy of Jeremiah’s reasoning: 

“Why would we force people to take a vaccine that we know does not stop transmission of the virus?  This makes no sense at this point in time.”

Jeremiah  ended the letter by stating that her decision was final and the only action left for the Kirkland firefighters was to file a private lawsuit within ninety days.