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Top Washington transportation official encourages vacations after vaccine mandate firings

An email in which a high-ranking Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) official urged staff to not worry about keeping up with their workload and take a vacation, after Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate created hundreds of vacancies, is raising some eyebrows.

video posted on YouTube by someone identified as “I am WAM (We Are Many)” reviews an all-staff email by WSDOT Deputy Secretary Amy Scarton – confirmed by WSDOT as legitimate – titled, “Don’t feel guilty about not accomplishing your workload.”

The pro-employee mental health email, sent to staff on Oct. 21, came on the heels of Inslee’s Oct. 18 deadline for state workers to get vaccinated. It has resulted in WSDOT losing 402 employees out of a total workforce of 6,813 in order to comply with the governor’s mandate.

Some excerpts from the email:

  • “But fear, uncertainty, anxiety, anger, sadness and other strong emotions about the pandemic can be overwhelming, and workplace stress leads to burnout.”
  • “It is completely normal and even expected for all of us to be working at a different pace or to find that we are unable to tackle everything the way we used to,” Scarton wrote before referencing a staff webinar on disaster response.
  • “I know there are concerns about work after the Oct. 18 vaccine deadline and worry about having to pick up more work related to the departure of some employees.”

    Scarton then goes on to note “that is not this agency’s expectation.”

  • WSDOT will need to “determine what activities may have to be delayed” as the agency continues to “actively recruit for vacant positions.”
  • “Focus on hope,” Scarton advised, recommending stressed employees take some time off.

    “And it’s also crucial to take breaks and give yourself time to rest and recharge – so if you haven’t already, look into scheduling some leave to help avoid burnout,” she said. “I’ve found stepping away from work for short vacations has helped me immensely during the pandemic and I’m sure it’ll help you as well.”

A top WSDOT official recommending vacations during a major staffing shortage and with winter just around the corner strikes the wrong tone, according to Mariya Frost, director of the Coles Center for Transportation at the Washington Policy Center.

“This was not unforeseen,” Frost said. “WSDOT has created this problem and the resulting anxiety and stress it has caused among remaining employees. Agency leadership owes employees more than emails that encourage them to ‘focus on hope’ or to watch a mental health webinar. They owe them a concrete plan. The safety of the traveling public should be a top priority for the agency.”

“Safety is always a top priority at WSDOT,” WSDOT Communications Director Kris Reitmann wrote in an email responding to questions about the leaked email. “We are pleased 94 percent of employees made the decision to get vaccinated to protect themselves, their coworkers, and the traveling public.

“Our agency has communicated several times in recent weeks internally and externally that we cannot do more with less staff. That is simply not feasible. We have asked our employees to pause, reset, prioritize workload, determine if there are ways to do things differently, determine what will not get done for now and start elevating those very real service and operational effects both within and outside of the agency while we aggressively recruit to fill vacancies.”

Employees’ mental health plays an important role at WSDOT, Reitmann indicated.

“Part of safety is recognizing behavioral health,” she wrote. “Behavioral health has been a focus for the agency for the duration of the pandemic. Encouraging people to plan ahead to take the time off they need and have accrued is an important aspect to ensuring our employees are healthy mentally and physically for the work at hand especially walking into winter operations. Employees planning ahead from a leave perspective also gives supervisors better visibility into the resources we have available as we plan for the months to come.

“Longer term, encouraging work life balance is just one of many ways that we position ourselves as an employer of choice especially as we actively recruit for vacancies. State government needs to use all the tools in the toolbox to attract and retain an excellent workforce.”

This article was originally posted on Top Washington transportation official encourages vacations after vaccine mandate firings