A Port Orchard woman who worked for Kitsap County District Court for nearly 30 years was fired last month for refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19, claiming it would violate her religious beliefs and endanger her health.
Tammy Duryea, 58, was officially terminated on Nov. 19 from her position as a fiscal technician II after District Court officials rejected her appeal for an exemption and found there was no reasonable way to accommodate her. She started work with the office in July 1994 and believes she is the only county employee to be fired for refusing the vaccine. Duryea and her attorney said they are prepared to file a lawsuit over the matter.
“It was heartless, they didn’t try to work with me at all,” Duryea said, adding later that in the lead-up to her dismissal she didn’t think the court would actually fire her. “It was brutal. It was an absolute shock."
Though Kitsap County does not have a policy requiring all employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, judges in the county’s courts mandated vaccines for employees. That includes District Court — including judges, support staff and clerks — and Superior Court judges and administrative employees. Superior Court clerks, who do not have a mandate, answer to the elected clerk and are considered a separate branch of government from the courts.
The vaccine mandate for court workers gave employees until Nov. 1 to be fully vaccinated or obtain an exemption. If an employee did not meet the requirements by that date they could be fired for non-disciplinary reasons. Frequent testing was not offered as an alternative, Duryea said.
The county court mandate mirrors a mandate set for the state Supreme Court. When establishing their requirement, justices "strongly encouraged" lower courts to adopt similar requirements.
Duryea contended that because she had no direct contact with the public she could perform her job remotely except for about 15 to 30 minutes of work per week printing checks, she said, work that could be taken over by another employee.
“I don’t think that’s asking much,” she said.
Duryea's attorney, Chalmers Johnson, said the primary issue is that court or county officials did not take proper steps to evaluate what would be required to accommodate her and whether that would pose an "undue hardship," something required by law.
"They didn't even try," Johnson said.
Further, after more than 27 years — and less than three years before she would become eligible for full retirement benefits — Duryea said she felt stabbed in the back. She feels she was targeted for her age and claimed she was also being discriminated against for being non-vaccinated.
“The Kitsap County District Court is allowing the working conditions of the vaccinated people to remain the same, while I am being offered zero accommodations,” Duryea wrote in a letter to the county’s human resources officials.
County Commissioner Rob Gelder said he is only aware of a mandate for county court employees, not any other county departments. As the courts are their own branch of government and are led by elected officials, commissioners do not have the power to overrule the mandate.
However, Gelder said he anticipates new COVID-19 workplace safety rules for employers with 100 or more employees, guided by federal requirements, to eventually be implemented for all county workers. The rules would not be a "mandate" to be vaccinated, he said, as they would offer testing as an alternative to vaccination.
He heard a rumor the new rules could be implemented in early January but wasn't sure when it would happen.
"I just hope we have enough advance warning of implementation to iron out the details," Gelder said.
At that point, Gelder said county courts might decide to walk back their mandate and offer testing, but he did not know if that would happen.
In a recent performance evaluation that Duryea showed the Kitsap Sun, supervisors praised her as “positive” and “professional.”
“Even when there are adverse conditions, she carries an upbeat attitude,” a supervisor wrote.
Duryea’s competence was not cited as a reason for her dismissal, rather it was her refusal to be vaccinated.
“In performing your duties at the courthouse campus, your contention that you have no direct contact with the public is not accurate,” Court Administrator Clint Casebolt wrote in Duryea’s dismissal letter, provided to the Kitsap Sun by Duryea. “Your unvaccinated status in the workplace presents a significant risk to the safety and well being of the public, your coworkers and other county employees. Thus, you are not qualified for your job if you are not vaccinated against COVID-19.”
Further, Casebolt wrote that there was no "reasonable accommodation" that can be made to exempt Duryea from the mandate, and if she were to work remotely, "many" of her duties would have to be performed by co-workers, creating a hardship for them.
The court is led by four elected judges who appoint a presiding judge. Right now the presiding judge is Claire Bradley.
Casebolt wrote in an email to the Kitsap Sun that it would be inappropriate to comment on personnel matters but he confirmed: "Ms. Duryea was a valuable employee who served the Kitsap County District Court for years."
The Kitsap Sun sent Bradley a list of questions, including whether the court had its policy reviewed by an expert in employment law and if any other employees were fired or accommodated. She did not respond.
Duryea said in 1995, after receiving a flu shot, she had a severe, nearly fatal reaction that required extensive medical treatment. However, she said her doctor’s office at the time has since destroyed records from that period. She said she is not anti-vaccine but has good reason to be afraid of what could happen to her.
A family medicine doctor Duryea now sees — different from her doctor in 1995 — wrote her a note saying she shouldn’t be required to take the vaccine because of the 1995 incident. However, that doctor did not test Duryea for allergies, she said.
Some adverse reactions to vaccines have been blamed on the presence of eggs in vaccines or latex in syringes. In the case of a latex allergy, syringes with non-latex plungers can be substituted, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Duryea said she eats eggs but avoids wearing latex gloves, as they make her hands turn red and feel hot.
However, she said she did not get tested for allergies, something that could back up her claim that vaccines could pose her a serious health risk.
When asked why she didn’t pursue testing, Duryea said that if the testing did not find she was sensitive to an allergen, and she took the shot and reacted negatively and died, there would be no one to hold liable.
The lack of proof of a medical condition was cited in Duryea’s dismissal letter. Casebolt wrote that the information Duryea provided to support her request for a disability exemption was insufficient, as it did not include a consultation with an expert who could assess the risk Duryea faced or identify substances that would cause an allergic reaction.
Further, Casebolt wrote that the process to decide Duryea's case was sufficient, calling it "interactive" and writing that judges "carefully" considered her requests.
Prior to asking for a medical exemption, Duryea also requested an exemption based on her religious beliefs, which judges also denied.
“The word of God informs me that as a Christian my physical body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit,” Duryea wrote in a Nov. 5 letter to the county’s human resources department. “I object to taking any injections into my body which I suspect could cause me physical harm.”
This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Kitsap County court employee of 27 years fired for refusing COVID-19 vaccine