This is the seventh in a series of stories of people losing their jobs because they have declined to take the required Covid-19 vaccination. The identities of these workers are being kept confidential because they fear reprisal. More stories will be included in future editions of this series as it continues this week. Previous interviews in this series are listed at the bottom of this story. Send your story to [email protected].
Bethel has a chronic police shortage. The city of 6,470 souls, on a good day, has trouble finding people to serve in law enforcement. The police department, always in recruitment mode, has a women and Native preference hire policy, and it’s now requiring all officers and staff to be vaccinated for Covid-19. That narrows things in a town that is a hub community for Western Alaska.
The vaccine mandate policy went into effect for all city workers on Sept. 27, and since then, Investigator Vincent Garay has been cooling his heels back in Wasilla, where he lives when not on his two-week shift. Half of the Bethel Police force lives out of Bethel, and several live in Georgia or Minnesota.
Garay, who immigrated from the Philippines decades ago, has served in law enforcement for 27 years. Last year, he joined the Bethel police force after serving as the chief of police in Fort Yukon. Much of the work in Bethel policing consists of dealing with drunks, drugged-out people, and domestic violence, but his work covers the gambit; earlier this year he was giving a commendation award for giving rides at a carnival in town so children could see the inside of the police car.
But as a devout Roman Catholic, he is declining to get the vaccine and he filed for a religious exemption. One of his colleagues asked for a religious exemption as well and was granted one. Garay’s request was turned down. Garay thinks it is because his colleague is nondenominational, while as a practicing Roman Catholic, Garay thinks his request was denied because the Archdiocese of New York has given approval for Catholics to take the Covid-19 vaccine.
Garay says it doesn’t matter what the New York Archdiocese says on the vaccine, or what the Pope says, for that matter. Garay believes that because the development of the vaccine used aborted fetal tissue, he won’t have it injected into his body. It’s contrary to his pro-life beliefs, grounded in his faith. He basis his belief on the New Testament Revelations 13 and the “mark of the beast.”
The mandate came down a few weeks after an initial action two months ago by the police department. All employees were divided into lists of “vaccinated,” “unvaccinated,” and “declined to say.” Garay declined to say.
Those in the category of “unvaccinated” or “declined to say” were mandated to be tested for Covid every time they started their two-week rotation.
But then came the new mandate covering all city employees: Vaccinate, or be placed on administrative leave for seven days, without pay. If the employee still refuses, he or she will be placed on 30-day administrative leave. After that, they won’t be scheduled to work; essentially, they will be fired.
Garay was placed on leave; his gun and badge were taken away from him. That’s never happened to him in his entire law enforcement career.
As of the Sept. 27 deadline, six City of Bethel employees faced being fired for refusing the vaccine. Before that deadline, seven police officers were not vaccinated, but now all but two have gotten the vaccine. One got a religious exemption, but not Garay. His was denied on Sept. 29 by the city’s Human Resources director.
Garay is not quitting. He will require the City of Bethel to fire him, if it comes to that. Four other employees of the city face firing, which is 5 percent of the city’s workforce.
“It’s about conviction,” Garay said. “I was born in the Philippines. I am Filipino Roman Catholic, ultra conservative. I don’t even eat an hour before receiving Holy Communion.” Garay has also asked for a medical exemption because of a severe allergy to aspirin. Although the vaccine for Covid doesn’t contain aspirin, he is taking no chances. His doctor would not sign the form after testing him for antibodies, so he withdrew his request for a medical exemption.
In addition to its hiring preferences for women and Natives, the Bethel Police Department posts itself as an Equal Opportunity employer, respecting all aspects of religious beliefs:
“In accordance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Pub. L. 102-166), all applicants for employment with the City of Bethel shall be afforded equal opportunity in all aspects of employment without regard to race, creed, color, religion, gender, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, national origin or ancestry, marital status, disability, political affiliation, genetic information, pregnancy, parenthood, veteran status, or any other status or condition protected under federal, state, or local laws.”