On Wednesday, Kittitas County released a statement claiming that the Washington State Department of Transportation refused help to clear snow from roadways because the county does not mandate the COVID vaccine for their employees.
According to the county, "On the dates of January 5th and 6th, 2022, Kittitas County received significant snowfall. This snow event resulted in the closure of Interstate 90 and HWY 97 for three days causing freight deliveries to be delayed, travel across the State of Washington impossible, and access to services significantly impacted."
On October 18, 2021, due to a mandate from Democrat Governor Jay Inslee, Washington state fired or forced resignations of all unvaccinated employees from state agencies which resulted in hundreds of workers being released from WSDOT.
According to the county, 48 of those state employees were now "…no longer working to support the State maintenance and snow removal efforts in Kittitas County."
The county stated that on November 30, 2021, Kittitas County signed an interlocal agreement with the Washington State Department of Transportation. WSDOT requested this agreement based on an identified need for additional resources caused by reduced staffing, according to Carly Brettmann, Kittitas County Communications Director.
Due to the significant snowfall in the state since Christmas, the Kittitas County Department of Public Works offered assistance on January 11, 2022, to clear state roadways.
However, the state informed Kittitas County that they could not accept this assistance due to Kittitas County not mandating the COVID-19 vaccination for county employees.
Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass, the main east-west highway in Washington state reopened Sunday evening after being closed for almost four days due to snow. The closure impacted cross-state travel and commerce as approximately 30,000 vehicles traverse Snoqualmie Pass on a typical day.
A 44-mile stretch of US 2 over Stevens Pass, another east-west route, was still not open Wednesday because of the snow. Near Stevens Pass, in Leavenworth, the National Guard was deployed for wellness checks, clearing streets and walk ways and to bring in much needed supplies. The local Safeway was almost empty because of the closure of the passes after more than 3 feet of snow fell in in 24 hours.
US 12 over White Pass was able to re-open Monday afternoon.
States Commissioner Laura Osiadacz said in a statement, "During these times, we need to be able to put differences aside and work to support one another. It needs to be neighbors helping neighbors and lending a hand to get the work done."
Commissioner Cory Wright added, "This county is ready, as always, to put all hands on deck to solve this problem. It’s time for logic and leadership to overcome ideology and allow skilled equipment operators working alone in their cabs to get this job done."
States Commissioner Brett Wachsmith said, "I’m extremely proud of the work being done by our Public Works Department to be able to clear roads and be in place to be able to lend a helping hand to the State. It is unfortunate given the circumstances an agreement could not have come to fruition because we all want what is best for our community. At this time an agreement has not been reached."
On Monday, Washington Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar testified before the state legislature to answer if the firing of 151 maintenance workers over the vaccine mandate were a factor in multiple mountain passes being closed for days, stranding residents without basic supplies.
Representative Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) asked, "They’re riding solo in a cab of a plow truck. Could you share with me the logic behind firing employees that are working solo in a truck that have no contact with any other employees, or the public for that matter?"
Millar claimed, "We didn’t fire anybody. The requirements changed, and people elected not to meet the requirements of staying employed at the agency."
Miller also claimed that the snow over the weekend was so bad that having those employees who were released back on the job wouldn’t have mattered.
"We’re understaffed a little bit but not that much, and it would not have made a substantial difference."
Millar’s testimony conflicts what WSDOT workers are saying. Alex Kimbrough, a former WSDOT highway maintenance employee who helped maintain a section of Highway 12 as well as State Route 410 Road, who has stayed in contact with some of his former colleagues, told Mariya Frost at The Washington Policy Center, that WSDOT employees are burned out and frustrated.
"They are operating only 3-man crews instead of the typical 6 for their region. They are also being made to work their shifts 7 days a week. Having said that, it’s only going to get worse, like it’s not already bad enough. The burn out already felt is now leading some to question whether they can continue like this for the foreseeable future. And to top it off there are no Patrol resources to get to accidents and the already small crew is forced to also be the first responders. My former colleague who operates a snowplow for WSDOT came across a roll over last week and had to stop plowing to cut them out and then put them in his truck to warm back up. They had been trapped for an hour before he came across them and then another 3 hours before any emergency response showed up."
Kimbrough added, "I want people to know that yes the weather is terrible, but the current road conditions are not because we have crappy drivers. Look back at the Governor and his decision to layoff over 400 employees when we need them most. Even if we had a full crew, we would still struggle of course, but there would be more resources to maintain so we’re not burning out our remaining employees at 7 days a week. To put all the burden on the few that are left behind to maintain these roads and to have media negate what is being done to these employees, chalking it up to a weather issue, when the mandate is a part of the problem, is a slap in the face."
UPDATE: Following publication of this article, WSDOT issued a statement claiming that the county’s help was not an "option" due to the mandate, but at the same time suggested the county didn’t have the proper equipment needed to clear snow.
WSDOT added that they had "...secured a private contractor to clear the roadway with work beginning Wednesday morning, January 12." They did not specify if the contractor's employee's were vaccinated.