Lawsuit says Belen firefighter fired for reporting COVID-19 case

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Jan. 23—A former Belen firefighter alleges in a lawsuit that he was fired last year after raising concerns about a co-worker with symptoms of COVID-19 who was allowed to remain at work.

Michael Rayne was fired in October as a Belen airport rescue firefighter in retaliation for reporting his concerns to a Belen city official, according to the suit filed Jan. 14 against the City of Belen.

Rayne was fired only five months after the city hired him on May 21.

The suit contends Rayne was protected under the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act when he reported the suspected COVID-19 illness to the city's human resources director.

Belen City Manager Andrew Salas said in an email that the city does not comment on pending legal matters.

The 2nd Judicial District Court lawsuit sets out a series of events that led to Rayne's termination.

Rayne reported to work on Aug. 11 and noticed that a fellow firefighter appeared to be sick.

In a private conversation with his supervisor, Rayne expressed concern that the firefighter showed symptoms of COVID-19 and "was potentially exposing the entire crew by coming to work sick," the suit states.

Rayne's attorney, Daniel Apodaca, said the sick firefighter tested positive for COVID-19 around Aug. 12, requiring the entire airport fire and rescue staff to remain in quarantine until Aug. 22.

During their private conversation, Rayne suggested that the supervisor send the sick firefighter home "and was told, 'I can't send him home — we have staffing issues'," Apodaca said.

The supervisor sent Rayne home but allowed the sick firefighter to remain on the job, according to the suit.

After arriving home, Rayne contacted Steven Gonzales, Belen's director of human resources, and expressed concern about the supervisor's decision to allow the sick firefighter to remain at work.

Gonzales later had a discussion with Rayne's supervisor about those concerns.

The supervisor had a meeting with the firefighting staff on Sept. 13 and told them he was upset that someone had reported the illness to human resources, which he considered "insubordination" for not following the chain of command, the lawsuit alleges.

The supervisor is not identified as a defendant in the lawsuit.

After Rayne admitted that he had contacted human resources, "the retaliation against Mr. Rayne began," the suit states.

The supervisor "began the process of getting rid of Mr. Rayne by nitpicking the work of Mr. Rayne," it alleges.

The suit alleges that the supervisor eventually built a case against Rayne and fired him on Oct. 12.

The suit seeks unspecified damages for lost wages and benefits and for emotional stress.