Employees, WAGAP offer differing explanations on vaccine stands

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Former employees of Washington Gorge Action Programs (WAGAP) who worked in the Goldendale office are claiming they left—by dismissal or resignation—as a result of unfair practices by the organization in the face of their opposition to Covid vaccination. WAGAP says the employees misread the organization’s intentions and actions.

Mary Bodeau held a supervisory position in the Goldendale WAGAP office and served as its housing development coordinator. She began work there in September, being hired after a previous stint with WAGAP from 2015 to 2017. Per a notice sent to all WAGAP employees in August, she learned that she, along with all employees of WAGAP, would have to be vaccinated for Covid-19 by October 18.

The demand was anathema to Bodeau. A practicing Catholic with a new baby, she felt being forced to be vaccinated in order to keep her job was wrong as a matter of policy and potentially fraught with danger. A religious pamphlet she’d read warned, “Certain questions remain open about the vaccine, such as its effects on pregnant women, unborn children, fertility, and other medical factors… Many of these things will not be known without further medical research.”

“I just don’t wish to contribute to that testing,” Bodeau says. “I have made a conscious decision based on morals and religion to not inject [the vaccine] into my body when the side effects could potentially be sterilization and/or death for certain individuals. I strongly believe an individual who has done their research and wants to get the vaccine should certainly do so, but I also believe if you have done your research, with a vaccine that has these side effects, and you do not wish to inject it in your body, then that is also your choice. It should not be a condition of employment if it could potentially affect you in a negative way.”

For those reasons, Bodeau began considering a religious exemption request. Then another employee, under Bodeau’s supervision, submitted the same request. On August 30, “[That employee] received an email back from Leslie [Naramore, WAGAP’s executive director] saying, ‘Your exemption is valid,’” Bodeau recalls. Naramore asked if the employee was available to talk about the request. The employee agreed, and it was decided they would do it by phone. “Hearing this, it gave me a sense of relief that our agency validated us, our beliefs, and valued us to try to keep us employed with them,” Bodeau states. “I felt confident and turned in my religious exemption request on September 1, 2021.”

A while later, Bodeau’s employee came to her and said she hadn’t heard back from Naramore about her request, so Bodeau emailed Naramore to ask about it. Minutes later, Naramore called Bodeau, with Patty Gallardo, WAGAP’s Human Resources (HR) coordinator, on the line. They were calling to talk not about the employee’s request but Bodeau’s.

“Leslie asked me how I could work from home,” Bodeau says. “She said that was the only acceptable way for me to stay employed.” Bodeau ran down a variety of options for working remotely that she said would be effective. Naramore told her they would not work, Bodeau says.

Then Naramore added a question that startled Bodeau: “She asked me, since the Pope was on board [with the vaccine], how come I wasn’t on board?

“In my eyes, the Pope does not speak for me, as I have done my research and do not feel it is the choice for me,” Bodeau says. “Leslie went on to ask me about the J&J [Johnson & Johnson] vaccine, which is derived from aborted fetal cells. She then advised me to speak with my doctor about it. I did not feel that was a professional way to have a conversation about this situation.”

In response to questions from The Sentinel, WAGAP staff, advisors, and board members collectively submitted prepared statements. In regard to the Pope question, they wrote, “Unfortunately, Ms. Bodeau’s request for exemption did not successfully include an accommodation plan agreed to by both parties. It was not the executive director’s intent to offend Ms. Bodeau. Given that Ms. Bodeau had shared her religious preference as part of her exemption request, the executive director’s statement was meant to offer her the option to reconsider getting the vaccination since the head of the Catholic Church has spoken in favor of Covid-19 vaccinations. The executive director also encouraged her to talk again with her doctor for further information to alleviate any concerns she might have about taking the vaccination.”

Bodeau’s request was denied. On September 7, she received an email from Gallardo asking her to sign the denial as an acknowledgement of it. Bodeau declined to do so. She sent a long, detailed email to Naramore again detailing how she could effectively work remotely. Naramore responded in email, “Your job cannot be done remotely indefinitely.” That same afternoon, Gallardo sent Bodeau an email saying she was immediately terminated.

The denial of request for religious exemption, then, seemed based on WAGAP’s determination that Bodeau could not effectively work remotely, rather than on any religious consideration. WAGAP was asked how a request for religious accommodation could be denied on grounds unrelated to religion. “WAGAP did not deny any employees based on their religion,” came the response. “Employers retain the right to decide what reasonable accommodations will be. The final decisions were based on the case-by-case review of individual job responsibilities and whether both parties could agree on the accommodation plan.”

The following week, Bodeau found out from the employee who first submitted her religious exemption request that her exemption was accepted. “She was granted all the accommodations I asked for,” Bodeau says. “Another employee who blatantly told Leslie she was not getting the vaccine was told she could continue to work until October 18.”

Immediately after Bodeau’s termination, a coworker, Damon Wagner, resigned. “I quit because of what they did to her,” Wagner says, referring to Bodeau, “and because HR was harassing me over the phone.”

Josh Van Horn’s employee status was very brief, only a matter of days. He says he left because he faced sharp opposition from WAGAP to his role in helping organize and participating in anti-vaccination mandate protests in Goldendale (although he did get vaccinated). He states WAGAP has a policy that allows such activity so long as it was not on company time or using company resources; WAGAP asserts Van Horn did not understand the actual policy. “I went down to go fill out my new hire paperwork,” Van Horn says, “and within five minutes of walking into the building, the front desk lady takes me back to HR. She [Gallardo] had the new-hire paperwork. She sat down, I sat down, and she looks at me and says, ‘It’s not right what you’re doing.’” Believing WAGAP was violating its own policy, he quit.

WAGAP says Van Horn totally got it wrong. They say he was hired with grant money to work in a new program aimed specifically at encouraging underserved communities to get vaccinated. “Before an offer of employment was extended,” WAGAP wrote, “he was asked how he would reconcile questions from the community about his personal beliefs against vaccinations and the fact that he had led anti-vaccine protests, with now being in a role to encourage people to become vaccinated. Mr. Van Horn was then offered, and accepted, the position regardless of his personal views.

“Upon orientation, Mr. Van Horn was informed that employees are prohibited from lobbying while on duty or otherwise.” With this statement, WAGAP establishes for itself the view that participating in protests constitutes lobbying. “WAGAP is funded by multiple grant sources with anti-lobbying clauses that apply to all employees; a no-lobbying standard applies across the agency,” WAGAP continues. “Mr. Van Horn completed his new-hire orientation paperwork, including signing for his handbook. He was then scheduled for his first day of work but sent a letter of resignation the night prior to his first scheduled shift. He was not discriminated against because of his personal political views. It appears there may have been a misunderstanding about the difference between personal political views and what constitutes lobbying.”

WAGAP sees a distinction between participating in protests—which it classifies as lobbying—and other free expression of political views on personal time. Asked if, as some have said, WAGAP employees participated in protests in Portland, the organization said it does not know of any who did.

Wagner and Van Horn say WAGAP makes employees participate in training and watching of videos in support of Black Lives Matter (BLM). They cite such indoctrination as an indication that WAGAP holds a double standard in political stands, given that BLM is commonly viewed as a highly sensitive political issue. Naramore, they point out, insists that BLM is not a political matter but rather a human rights matter, a position she acknowledges. They say the distinction is arbitrary and misses the broader point of BLM as a fiery political point of contention. And whether a political or human rights issue, they say no employer has the right to insist its employees follow a prescribed compliance of opinion.

Naramore and WAGAP do address BLM as a matter of human rights. “WAGAP is heavily invested in the work of racial equity. Employees participate in many different pieces of training on diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice issues,” their statement reads. “Nearly all grant contracts include language requiring equity matters to be included in all agency work and strategic planning. WAGAP is a social justice organization, and we take that responsibility very seriously. We stand for all people who are underserved and overlooked in our communities. The WAGAP board of directors recently issued a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statement at www.wagap.org/our-board.”

In common public perception, BLM is viewed as two separate things: a broad social theme and a specific body of people behind it. (BLM is loosely structured but traces its roots in part to the Black Lives Matter Network formed in 2013. There are various offshoot chapters of BLM organizations, some of which have leaders who have put forth social agendas seen as socialist, with expressions of sympathy for Communism. For many, the “organization” of BLM is synonymous with violent protests such as seen in Portland and other cities in recent years.) BLM is often differentiated between its organizational arms and a broader call to racial equality.

For WAGAP, the issue is clear: “As WAGAP’s Board President Bruce Bolme said, ‘WAGAP sees black lives matter as a lowercase movement and not an uppercase organization,’” Naramore says. “I think of black lives matter in terms of a movement of people driven to bring awareness to the conditions imposed upon Black people simply due to the color of their skin.”

Bodeau, Wagner, and Van Horn believe WAGAP maintains double standards and conducts its affairs with wanton arrogance in forcing its vaccination agenda on its employees. WAGAP says it needs workers who can staff offices and that it is bound by its grant funding conditions and moral organizational outlook to adhere to clear social justice policies.

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