Containers hold nuclear waste

Containers hold nuclear waste at the Perma-Fix facility in Richland. The wastes are handled in various ways to reduce their volume or to stabilize them for long-term storage. 

RICHLAND, Wa. — Nearly 11,000 workers at the Hanford nuclear reservation have been given more time to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or receive an exemption.

There also appears to be a move by at least some employers at the site to allow accommodations that will allow more of those with approved religious or medical exemptions to continue working.

However, the deadline extension does not cover about 300 Hanford site workers who are employed directly by DOE. They face a Monday, Nov. 22, deadline to prove they are vaccinated.

The majority of Hanford workers are employed by DOE contractors and their subcontractors.

They had been given a vaccine mandate deadline of Dec. 8, but that has been extended to allow them until Jan. 18 to be fully vaccinated.

Because they are not considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after their final required dose of the vaccine, they have until Jan. 4 to receive the single dose required of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine or the second dose required of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine.

The vaccine mandate for federal contractor employees has been contentious at Hanford, with almost 300 Hanford workers filing a lawsuit in federal court asking that the vaccine mandate be immediately overturned.

A Richland rally in opposition to the mandate drew hundreds on Nov. 3.

The mandate was extended after the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force changed the deadline and Hanford officials discussed the change with union leadership.

Workers may apply for a religious or medical exemption. But plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit say that while exemptions have been granted, accommodations have not been made in many cases to allow people who are not vaccinated to continue working.

The lawsuit claims that so many Hanford workers could lose their jobs due to the mandate that the nuclear reservation could not be kept safe and secure.

Scott Sax, president of Central Plateau Cleanup Co., said in a memo to workers late last week that leaders there would re-evaluate exemption requests.

They will to determining if a combination of masking, social distancing and weekly testing could be considered a suitable accommodation based on job classifications and workers' day-to-day tasks.

The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force has identified COVID-19 testing as a potential alternative to vaccination, he said in the memo.

"These are difficult decisions being made in very challenging times," he said. "Each of us is entitled to our respective viewpoint and choice."

Amy Schatz, manager of workforce resources at Washington River Protection Solutions, sent a similar message to that contractor's employees.

"My hope is that each of you recognizes that we are making our best effort to choose a path that will protect our employees and bring us into compliance with our federally mandated contract requirements," she told employees.

Most Hanford workers are being told they need to submit their vaccination status in the next few weeks.

Some contractors are contacting employees who have not yet submitted information and one is sending out a questionnaire for them to answer.

The 580-square-mile nuclear reservation next to the Tri-Cities in Eastern Washington.

It was used from World War II through the Cold War to produce about two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program.

A COVID-19 vaccine requirement for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, DOE's other large Tri-Cities facility, took effect last week as ordered by DOE contractor Battelle for 5,300 employees.

Some 94% of staff were fully or partially vaccinated by the deadline.

PNNL has lost 31 employees, or less than 1 % of its workforce, to retirement, resignation or termination because of the requirement to be vaccinated or have an exemption approved.

Copyright 2021 Tribune Content Agency.

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