WA is reopening but many essential workers aren’t vaccinated yet

How the state chose who to inoculate first raises questions about equity — especially for restaurant, grocery and transit workers.

A man stands amid chairs in a post-vaccination waiting area at Lumen Field Event Center's COVID-19 vaccination site on March 13, 2021. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

In early March 2020, Julee Richards remembers sitting in stunned silence with her co-workers in the breakroom. COVID-19 had just been declared a global pandemic, and panicked shoppers were starting to swarm the Fred Meyer near Tacoma where Richards works as a cashier.

Over the next few weeks, a number of employees quit out of concern for their safety, leaving Richards and those who remained to manage the crowds on their own. “We barely survived through May,” she said.

During those early days of the pandemic, Richards assumed that when a vaccine was finally developed, essential frontline workers like her would be among the first to receive it. One year later, more than 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Washington state. Richards and her co-workers are still waiting for their turn. 

There was little disagreement when it came to giving health care workers and nursing home residents priority for vaccines. But as supply continues to increase, states have been forced to make increasingly tough ethical decisions about who gets the shot next. In Washington, a confusing system of tiers and eligibility has left some groups feeling left out.

Washington is prioritizing people over 65 and those over 50 who live in multigenerational households. Teachers and child care workers were originally included in that second tier, but a March 2 directive from President Biden bumped them to the front of the line alongside seniors.

Grocery workers will become eligible on March 17, along with critical workers in agriculture, corrections, transit, food processing and other select congregate settings. People over 16 who are pregnant or have a disability that puts them at high risk will also become eligible. Other people working directly with the public — in restaurants and retail, for example — have yet to be told to get in line.

When she learned she would soon be able to get the shot, Richards’ emotions were mixed. “I was so happy that we finally got protected but I was so mad that it took this long for grocery workers. Why were we at the back of the line when we’ve been at the front line?” she said.

Frontline worker priorities

The decision to put teachers and the elderly at the front of the line has led some to question why these predominantly white groups, most of whom have the ability to stay home, were prioritized over grocery, transit and other frontline workers — who don’t have the option of working from home and are more likely to be from disproportionately impacted communities of color. Eighty-six percent of teachers in Washington are white. Fifty-one percent of King County Metro employees are people of color, making it one of the most diverse public sector workforces in the county. The Washington HospitaIity Association reports 40% of hospitality workers, including restaurants, bars and hotels, are Black, Indigenous or people of color.

When the pandemic started, Valerie Weeks, a King County Metro transit operations chief, assumed that she and other essential workers with high-exposure jobs would be prioritized for the vaccine. She said the drivers she works with have been putting themselves in danger every day of the pandemic — providing critical public infrastructure and helping transport nurses, doctors and even people on their way to get tested for COVID-19.

“They’re doing everything they can,” she said. “And to not push those people toward the front of the line, I think, is kind of insulting.”

Seattle Metro buses have a mask requirement and a recommended passenger limit, but Weeks said drivers don’t have the ability to enforce the rules and are frequently put in high-risk situations. Some drivers have been injured by belligerent passengers while trying to enforce the mask policy.

“It feels unending. Honestly, I have a lot of employees who are really concerned that coming to work is going to give them a sickness that could kill them, but they don’t have a choice because they need to come to work to feed their families,” Weeks said.

Weeks knows of individual drivers who’ve gotten sick, but said an ongoing lack of transparency from management prevents her from knowing the full number. Two Metro employees died in 2020 after contracting COVID-19. 

Vaccine roller coaster

Teachers were originally scheduled to become eligible at the same time as other critical workers. During a March 4 media availability, Inslee said he disagreed with Biden’s directive to move them to the front of the line, but was still hopeful that it would encourage a faster return to in-person instruction. On Friday, the governor followed up with an announcement that he was going to tell public school districts across Washington to offer in-person learning at least part-time for all their students.

“[I believed] that it was good that when we did move towards the next tranche, that we would have the same level of respect for agriculture workers and grocery store clerks and bus drivers as we did for educators. So we had them in that same grouping. The president made a different decision,” Inslee said. 

When asked about concerns over limited vaccine supply, Washington state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah told reporters he believes the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program will provide the “lion’s share” of vaccines for teachers, but that some will also have to come from the state supply.

Shelby Anderson, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health, said the directive on teacher vaccines added 260,000 people to the 2.1 million already eligible in Washington.

Richards, the Fred Meyer cashier, said she understands the importance of education and vaccinating those at risk, but still finds the current system frustrating. She described the state’s communications as feeling like you’re riding a roller coaster — with dates constantly shifting and grocery workers being treated as both essential and expendable.

“They just scooted us to the back,” Richards said, “every group getting in front of us, and it’s stunning to me. We never had the option to work from home.”

Workers vs. workers

For some educators, the news that they would be moved to the front of the vaccine line was also met with mixed emotions. SEIU Local 925, a union representing about 20,000 educators and child care workers in Washington State, tweeted that they were grateful to become eligible, but that they refused to be pitted against other essential workers who have been risking their lives. Washington Education Association President Larry Delaney released a statement thanking Biden and calling the decision a “huge sense of relief” for educators already working in person. About 200 Washington school districts are already offering some in-person education.

Richard Katz, a high school geography teacher in Seattle, got his first shot a few days after Biden’s announcement. 

“I don’t mind getting my shot, but I hate the fact that I might be taking a shot out of the arm of somebody that could really use it,” Katz said.

Katz said that even with the vaccine, he’s not sure if he would feel entirely safe returning to the classroom. Issues like poor ventilation, inadequate protective equipment and disagreement over how far desks should be spaced have stalled union negotiations in Seattle and other Washington school districts that are still teaching mostly online.

Inslee has said he hopes the prioritization of teachers will provide the encouragement needed to put kids back in schools, but on Friday he said he was going to add an emergency proclamation to push the issue further. Thirty-four percent of Washington students currently attend in-person classes on a given day.

In Seattle, the state’s largest school district, the teachers union reached a tentative agreement with the district that will send roughly 1,100 students in special education and preschool back to the classroom at the end of the month. But the district has not announced any plans to bring other students back to class.

In Tacoma, plans to return were already underway before the announcement from Biden. Jayla Watje, a learning program manager with the district, said that while she welcomed the news, vaccinating teachers won’t solve the underlying problems with in-person instruction.

Watje is part of a group called Safe Return Tacoma that has  protested the district’s return to in-person instruction. One of its demands is that students return to class only when the entire community has access to the vaccine. That hasn’t happened, but on Monday older students were to begin a staggered return to Tacoma schools.

Part of her concern is for the greater community. Even with teachers protected and younger students at relatively low risk, Watje said sending kids back to classes could lead to more community spread, especially for Tacoma’s disproportionately impacted communities of Black, Indigenous and people of color.

Watje said she worries that the availability of vaccines will be used as an excuse to dismiss safety concerns and push teachers back into the classroom before they’re ready. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in a peer-reviewed report that schools do not contribute significantly to the transmission of COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been cases of coronavirus transmission traced to schools.

Watje said she understands the strain and difficulty that remote learning has caused for parents and students. But while Zoom school isn’t ideal, it can be done. People who don’t have the option of staying home should have been prioritized from the start, she said.

“I think that grocery store workers should have gotten it right alongside the elderly. My dad, he’s retired and he said, ‘You know, obviously I want it, but I can stay at home,’ ” Watje said.  

Katz said he wishes the state’s distribution system was doing more to prioritize minority groups that are having trouble accessing the vaccine. A February report from the Department of Health showed that Hispanic people are underrepresented in the state’s vaccine rollout. 

Addressing disparities

Health officials have attempted to address the disparity by expanding multilingual, phone-based appointment systems and opening a mass vaccination site at Lumen Field Event Center, which will prioritize appointments for community-based organizations serving residents who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. Communities of color continue to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Hispanic people, who make up 13% of the state population, have accounted for 31% of the state’s cases.

When the COVID-19 vaccine first became available, the CDC released guidelines for how to ethically prioritize distribution but left major decisions up to individual states. In January, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown made the controversial decision to prioritize educators ahead of elderly people. Courtney Campbell, a medical ethicist at Oregon State University, said the decision felt like a misuse of vaccines.    

“The purpose of the vaccines was not to solve a social problem — namely, getting kids back to school. The purpose of the vaccines was to protect people from infection or very serious hospitalizations, or even mortality,” Campbell said.

Although he disagrees with Oregon’s decision to prioritize teachers in January, Campbell said the rapidly increasing supply of the vaccine has made the situation more nuanced.

Nancy Jecker, a professor of bioethics and humanities at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said there is a utilitarian argument in prioritizing the people who keep society running, though she considers the term”'essential worker” to be a double-edged sword.   

Who is essential?

For hospitality workers like Josh Lieuallen, a barista at Pike Place Market, the phrase “essential worker” has been a continued source of frustration and confusion. When he first saw Inslee’s announcement that workers in food processing would soon become eligible for the vaccine, he excitedly tweeted out the news to some of his barista friends. He later realized that he had misread the announcement; baristas, waiters and others in the restaurant industry are not included in the next vaccine phase.

“It seems like that is the one sector of the quote-unquote essential workforce that is being purposely excluded,” Lieuallen said.

More than 3,500 restaurant and hospitality workers and their supporters have signed on to a petition calling on Inslee to include them in the next vaccine phase. Restaurants will be able to open at 50% indoor capacity on March 22, but the state has yet to announce a date when restaurant workers will become eligible for the vaccine.  

Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, said in a statement that he was frustrated by the exclusion.

“The state’s vaccination program has a glaring hole without hospitality workers — 40% of whom are Black, Indigenous and people of color — included in the next phase,” he said.

Vaccine supply is continuing to increase on a weekly basis. For many, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. On Thursday, Biden announced that he intends for every adult to be eligible for vaccines by May 1. Mike Solberg, a dairy manager at Safeway, said he’s fine waiting a few more weeks if it means helping get the students struggling with remote learning back in school.

“It’s creating depression and anxiety and issues for not only those families, but the children themselves. And that stable structure, putting them back to school, I think is almost more important,” he said.

Richards started bringing a small black bag of masks, sanitizer and Clorox wipes with her to work at Fred Meyer every day, soon after the pandemic started. She jokingly referred to it as her “I’d-like-to-stay-alive bag.”

Richards said she isn’t taking any chances and will continue wearing gloves and sanitizing surfaces even after she gets the vaccine. But she’s glad the finish line is finally in sight — even if she thinks it should have come sooner. 

“We’re just so stoked,” she laughed.

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