Washington State football coach Nick Rolovich's status unclear ahead of Monday vaccine deadline

October 17, 2021, 1:29 AM

PULLMAN, Wash. --  Washington State football coach Nick Rolovich said he has not been updated on the status of his religious exemption request that is needed to become compliant with the state's COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Without a resolution, it raises the possibility that Rolovich will not be allowed to continue in his job past Monday's state deadline to either be vaccinated or have an approved exemption.

"I'm gonna come to work tomorrow. ... I don't think this is in my hands," Rolovich said. "So I've been settled for a long time on it, and I just believe it's going to work out the right way."

His comments came moments after the Cougars (4-3) beat  Stanford  34-31 on Saturday, running their winning streak to three games and prompting players to dump a bucket of Gatorade over Rolovich's head near midfield.

When the state of Washington expanded its COVID-19 vaccine mandate to include all employees at higher learning institutions in August, Rolovich said he would comply, but he has since confirmed he applied for a religious exemption to avoid being vaccinated. He has been asked repeatedly for weeks to expand upon the reasoning for his position but has declined to provide clarity.

"[It's been] about three months, four months," Rolovich said. "So I've gotten used to it. These kids are incredible. Love being around them. They're playing their hearts out for this university. I think they've got a real good bond that they'll remember for the rest of their life. And it's just pretty special."

Ahead of Monday's deadline, there are a number of ways Rolovich's situation could unfold.

Before anything can happen, the Washington State University committee assigned to examining religious exemption requests needs to evaluate the one from Rolovich. It's a blind process, meaning the committee will not have access to any identifying information while making its determination, a process designed to treat every employee equally. At least two people trained in the legality of the religious exemption have to review every application, and it is not guaranteed they will get to Rolovich's by Monday, according to Washington State spokesperson Phil Weiler.

Employees who did not get their final shot by Oct. 4 -- the last day to allow for the requisite time to become fully vaccinated by the deadline -- or were slow to file the exemption request risked not having it processed in time, Weiler said.

"We messaged really clearly for quite a long time prior to that Oct. 4 deadline that if you wanted to receive an exemption, you would need to submit it as early as possible to ensure that a decision could be rendered prior to [being unable to come to work starting Oct. 19]," Weiler said Wednesday. "If we get a rush of requests at the end and the committee isn't able to work through all of them in time, the employee is not going to be able to work for the university until that decision on the request is rendered."

If Rolovich's request is not processed by Monday, he would either be placed on leave or could take accrued vacation time until there is a resolution. He has not said when he filed the exemption.

Rolovich would have the option to appeal the committee's decision if his request is denied. That process does not have a defined timeline.

If the committee denies Rolovich's request and he remains unwilling to get vaccinated, his employment would be terminated immediately. At that point, it's expected the school would refuse to pay out the rest of his contract -- setting up a possible legal battle.

Rolovich's annual salary is roughly $3 million, of which $2 million is considered a base salary. If he were to be terminated without cause, the terms of his contract would require the university pay him 60% of his remaining base salary through June 30, 2025.

It is unclear what would happen if Rolovich's request is denied and he reverses his stance and becomes willing to get vaccinated. However, the mandate would prevent him from doing his job for at least 14 days, the minimum time to become fully vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson shot.

Should his request be granted, it does not guarantee he will remain Washington State's coach. In that scenario, the approval from the committee would be delivered to the university's human resources department, which would inform his supervisor, athletic director Pat Chun.

"The supervisor needs to determine: Can this person really complete their responsibilities, their job duties, and do it in a way that is protecting the public?" Weiler said. "And then the supervisor then makes a decision. Either they say yes, then the exemption is granted. If they say no, the exemption is denied."

In the case of Rolovich, who is the state's highest-paid employee, the decision on whether accommodations could be made would involve other university leadership, including president Kirk Schulz.

"In general, statutes including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination require that employers reasonably accommodate their employees' sincere religious beliefs, as long as the accommodation does not impose an undue burden on the employer," Charlotte Garden, an associate law professor at the Seattle University School of Law and an expert in labor and employment law, said in an email. "A typical [non-pandemic-related] accommodation might involve an employer partially waiving its rules on employee dress to allow an employee to wear a religiously mandated head covering, or an employer allowing an employee to take breaks at certain times in order to pray.

"Applying this standard in the context of the covid vaccine mandate is considerably more complicated."

It is possible Washington State leadership has already received the committee's decision and has decided on a course of action but has yet to inform Rolovich. Neither Chun nor Schultz has provided a clear indication if the university will be willing, or able, to accommodate Rolovich if his exemption is approved.

Rolovich said he has not been given any indication from Chun how the process will play out if his request is granted.

"If that's not what [Chun] wants, then I guess that then I gotta, I gotta move on," Rolovich said. "But I like being here. I like being the coach here. I love these kids. And I just got faith in it."

Further complicating an already unprecedented situation is that there are multiple coaches on Rolovich's staff who also aren't vaccinated, according to multiple sources, and they face the same exemption process as their head coach. The total number has not been made public.

If Rolovich is granted an exemption and university leadership determines he can fulfill his responsibilities while meeting the public safety obligation, he will remain the team's coach, provided he continues to follow masking and other safety protocols.

Washington State has not provided any examples of what qualifies as a religious exemption. As part of the application process, Rolovich would have needed to attest to how his "sincerely held religious belief" is in conflict with the vaccine requirement.

No major religious denomination opposes COVID-19 vaccines, but that has no bearing on what can be considered a sincerely held belief.

Rolovich was made available via Zoom after Saturday's game, and he is scheduled to speak to the media Monday.