Union calls on city to find accommodations for unvaccinated Moses Lake firefighters

MOSES LAKE, Wash. — Firefighters are used to stressful situations, running into fires, saving buildings and people.

The vaccine mandate was another type of stress for firefighter Mike Miner.

“There’s a lot of stuff I brought to my faith. And, it just didn’t sit right with me,” Miner said.

It was between losing his job and not being able to provide for his family or get vaccinated against his faith, which he didn’t feel comfortable disclosing.

“With my upbringing and everything, it was really hard. I grew up poor. It was real hard to get by when I was younger, and I didn’t want that for my family. I didn’t want that for my kids,” Miner said.

The Moses Lake Fire Department has 33 firefighters. Of that, eight people asked for exemptions. Five ended up withdrawing their exemptions which led to three people leaving the department.

Miner was one of the five who asked for an exemption but ended up withdrawing and getting vaccinated.

It may not seem like a lot, but the loss of three people is a lot for the small department.

“We lost over 70 years of experience. In two officers, that’s a huge mentorship we’ve lost. Not only the guys that’ve worked here but if we bring on new people, that’s experience you just can’t gain back,” said Brandon Burns, a Moses Lake firefighter and president for Local 1258.

Burns says it’s difficult to fill positions at the department, so losing three people is a big deal. The fire department’s strategic plan also shows they’re in need of three additional people. The City of Moses Lake said because of the pandemic, the department has also asked for another position to open up to help with the increase in calls in the daytime.

“We are a rural community and not being a big city, we have a harder draw to get people to come and test for us,” Burns said.

The three people they lost did not want to get vaccinated and the city could not find a way to accommodate them. 

Now, firefighters including Miner are asking the city to find some type of accommodation for them. 

“We’ve been meeting with the city and in negotiations to get them back. In fact, we met today to try and persuade them on accommodations,” said Burns. “A lot of departments around the state are giving accommodations, and we should be no different.” 

“Something, right? Something for their people they say they value,” Miner added.

Firefighters started a petition which now has more than 2,100 signatures. They’re asking to bring back the three who left.

“Our goal is essentially to get as many signatures as possible and then bring it to the council and bring it to the city manager. Maybe it makes a difference, but, if not, they have to say no to a lot of people that vote,” Miner said.

Like Miner said, it’s ultimately up to the City Council and City Manager. Burns says they won’t stop fighting to bring their three firefighters back.

“I’m hopeful they’ll take what we gave them and those recommendations and accommodations and get our guys back,” Burns said.

The city couldn’t do an interview, but referred to a statement released Monday. It said it evaluated with staff and the fire chief, and that no accommodations could be made. The statement said, in part: 

“Our insurer counseled the City that if we were to act against the mandates and put an unvaccinated employee in a situation where we received a claim, then there is no coverage. We are a city that needs every penny of our reserve funds to bolster up the infrastructure of our community, not in fighting lawsuits.

The decision has been difficult and we greatly appreciate the years of service the employees provided to the City. Firefighters have had an extremely difficult job during COVID providing care to the City’s most vulnerable. We truly wish the situation was different. The City is also a recipient of various federal funding sources, so the federal mandate is being evaluated as well.”

The city says the union contracts allows the hiring of temporary firefighters when staff are out injured or on leave.

“We started hiring provisionals anticipating the staffing need with the mandate. Our Chief has provided a plan for active hiring of permanent positions immediately through our civil service process due to the staffing changes with the mandate,” the city emailed in a statement to 4 News Now.

Read the city’s full statement, here. To read more about the petition, click here.

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