Washington's Snow Response Snowballs Into an Ideological Storm

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On this, there's no debate: The Washington State Department of Transportation is short on staff. But the explanation for it has transformed what may have once been a staid conversation about recruitment and retention into yet another ideological rift.

As Washington dug itself out of snowstorms that crippled cross-state travel early this month, critics of Gov. Jay Inslee have sought to tie the pace of roads reopening to his vaccine mandate for state employees. Republican lawmakers questioned Washington's transportation secretary, Roger Millar — just as the Legislature began its session — about lobbying the governor to roll back the mandate for certain maintenance crews. One Republican lawmaker has introduced a bill that would allow WSDOT to rehire unvaccinated employees who've had COVID-19.

Last Wednesday, the issue spilled into public view when commissioners from Kittitas County launched a broadside against WSDOT management after the department turned down an offer of paid help because crews could not attest to being vaccinated. State officials say the county's attacks were misleading.

The accusations toward vaccine mandates are familiar ones, levied across the country as a threat to public safety, hospital staffing and basic services. They also come at a time when staffing issues plague nearly every industry — with or without vaccine mandates — making teasing out the specifics a challenge. WSDOT staffing has trended downward since 2020.

"We're in a weird place right now where so many unbelievable things have happened that nobody has a measuring stick anymore to evaluate whether something that seems outlandish could have happened," said House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, who opposes the governor's vaccine mandates.

Millar acknowledged to lawmakers that staffing for winter operations at WSDOT is below ideal levels. But he downplayed the effect of the mandate requiring that all state employees be vaccinated against COVID. The department has hired 200 employees since the mandate went into effect Oct. 18, he said, replacing the 151 who had left shortly after the vaccines became mandatory. When compared to late 2019, when the department employed 1,566 winter operations staff, the department is still short about 140 employees, he said, which he blamed on COVID-related hiring and budget freezes.

Transportation department data shows it lost more than 300 employees in the first half of 2020, the steepest drop since 2013. Nearly 30% of the department's workforce that year was eligible for partial or full retirement benefits. Millar pointed to Montana, which has no vaccine mandate and has also struggled with snowplow driver shortages. The same is true across the country.

"Yes, we do have a staffing issue," Millar told lawmakers. "Yes, we do have a budget issue. But the mandate is really a part of the solution to the problem that is the COVID pandemic."

But Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, said he wasn't satisfied with Millar's answers, calling them "spin." Broader trends notwithstanding, Barkis pointed to the 151 winter operations staff who retired or were let go after the mandate went into effect.

"He did acknowledge the fact that they do have a staffing shortage, but he refuses to acknowledge that it's a result of the mandate and firings," he said.

Other Republican lawmakers also continued to press Millar and the governor's office, using WSDOT's response to the snowstorms as a cudgel to attack a mandate they have opposed for months and continue to oppose today.

"The vaccine mandate is the wrong tool for where the disease is at today," Wilcox said.

Not since the mid-1990s has Western Washington found itself so isolated as it was earlier this month, when all four mountain passes closed following a pummeling of heavy snow and 20 miles of I-5 near Centralia shut down from flooding. I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass, the state's main east-west arterial, remained closed for nearly four days, while Stevens Pass only reopened Thursday, a week after it was blocked.

The state's work to reopen roadways was dictated entirely by the weather, said WSDOT spokesperson Summer Derrey.

"Staff levels did not impact the opening of the passes in a meaningful way," she said in an email. "This was not a normal storm. The amount of snow and resulting avalanche danger drove the pass closures and kept road crews from working in several areas because it simply wasn't safe for crews to be there."

"If I were the proverbial Duke of York with 10,000 men at my disposal, I would have not marched them up the hill last week during the middle of that storm, because it wasn't safe for anybody to be up there," Millar told lawmakers last Monday.

Nevertheless, Barkis remained skeptical that staff shortages played no impact, again pointing to the roughly 150 who left. More important, he said, is that the staff shortages still exist and it's early in the winter.

Wilcox echoed this point. "When you have staff crises, it's not the first challenge that breaks you," he said. "It's the next one and the one after that, that you really have a crisis."

Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, and chair of the House Transportation Committee, said he's sympathetic to the concerns of lawmakers frustrated by the closures. He also agreed that WSDOT is struggling with staff shortages.

But he warned against overly simple explanations. "Sometimes it's too easy to simplify and find one reason why things have gotten to the place they've gotten to," he said. Fey pointed to budget constraints imposed on WSDOT — by COVID, initiatives from Tim Eyman and the Legislature itself — as well as the demographics of the department's workforce.

The vaccine mandate may have played a role as well, he said, but he opposes rollbacks.

"When you start carving out exemptions it gets tougher to deal with the situation that we're in," he said. "Certainly there's some room for some criticism. But, you know, we've just been dealing with one after another difficult set of circumstances."

The friction created sparks last week, when Kittitas County commissioners said their offer to help clear a state road near the town of Ronald was rejected because they could not attest to their staff's vaccination status. Snow had accumulated in large mounds on either side of the road, which the county's director of public works, Mark Cook, said in an interview was creating unsafe conditions.

Kittitas and WSDOT struck a mutual aid agreement with one another in October, in which the state may call on the county for help with smaller roads. But, unlike the state, Kittitas County does not have a vaccine mandate. The state instead hired a contractor that could attest to its staff's vaccination status to help clear the road.

The road is now in much better condition. Still, Kittitas County Commissioner Laura Osiadacz said it would have been more efficient for the state to pay the county for the work. She framed the issue in political terms, accusing the governor of passing down decrees from Olympia that are not grounded in reality. "We're a small community, we're listening to our neighbors crying out for help, we try to respond and we're told 'no thank you' because our policies don't align with the state's," she said.

Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for the governor, said Kittitas "completely misrepresented the issue." The road was passable when Kittitas reached out, he said, and when they couldn't attest to vaccination status, the state pivoted to a nearby contractor.

The mandate, said Faulk, is "not just about safety at work — it's about safety for the communities where these employees reside. For all the talk about the mandate impacting worker availability, COVID itself is much more likely to disrupt operations and services."

Ten House Republicans sent Inslee a letter Friday, urging more exemptions to his vaccine mandate. Inslee has shown no signs of budging, once again expressing his frustration with unvaccinated people Thursday: "I think we're appropriately disheartened to find ourselves in a situation where so many people are not vaccinated."