Police officers and prison guards fired due to COVID-19 vaccine requirements in the Lower 48 are welcome to apply to job openings in Alaska but are not being specifically recruited by the Alaska Department of Public Safety or the Alaska Department of Corrections, officials said this week.

Both agencies have had problems filling vacancies, and in a Wednesday social media message, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said that if a law enforcement officer has been fired after refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or for refusing to say whether they have been vaccinated, they should consider Alaska.

The state does not have a vaccination requirement for state employees, and Dunleavy has said he will not impose one.

“Alaska’s law enforcement community invites you to consider the 49th state where we back the blue,” the governor’s social media post said.

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Rep. Liz Snyder, D-Anchorage and co-chair of the Alaska House Health and Social Services Committee, said that kind of message is problematic, given that Alaska has the highest COVID-19 case rate in the nation. (On Thursday, state hospitals reported a record number of COVID-19 patients.)

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“Posts like that run counter to the recommendations that we get from (the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services) and the communications that we’re hearing from DHSS on how we can mitigate continued extensive community spread,” she said.

Jeff Turner, a spokesman for the governor, said the social media post didn’t represent a new policy or push, just “a normal recruiting process.”

Monday was the deadline for public employees in Washington state to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and 92% of the state’s 62,000 employees, including most of its prison guards and state patrol officers, did so.

That left dozens, including 74 commissioned trooper officers, who resigned and may be looking for new jobs. Police departments in other states and cities are seeing similar trends. Dunleavy’s social media post linked to an article about Chicago’s police department.

Betsey Holley, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Corrections, said on Thursday the state has 1,064 positions for correctional officers, and all but 95 have either been filled or been offered to applicants.

The department has previously said that it struggles to retain and hire correctional officers, and members of the union representing those officers said in 2020 that it loses about 120 per year due to turnover, creating openings that must be filled.

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Holley said in a Wednesday email that the department is willing to hire officers fired in other states because of vaccine requirements, but it hasn’t targeted recruitment efforts toward those officers.

“If you read some of the posts that are on our Facebook page, there have been people that have responded to (a recruitment) Facebook post saying, ‘Oh, do you mandate vaccines?’ It’s just interesting that that’s the way people are thinking. But yes, we’ll welcome their applications if they want to apply,” she said by phone Thursday.

Austin McDaniel, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Public Safety, said the agency has seen an increase in “lateral trooper applications” this year. Those are police officers in other departments who are interested in becoming troopers.

He said it isn’t clear whether that’s because of vaccination mandates, but new statistics could be available by early December. He also confirmed that the department isn’t specifically targeting fired officers for recruitment but is willing to take their applications.

“The Alaska State Troopers are not running any targeted advertising addressing COVID-19 or the vaccine mandates occurring across the nation at the local, state and federal level. We would encourage any qualified applicant looking for an exciting career in law enforcement to consider a career with the Alaska State Troopers,” he said Wednesday.

In a report presented to the Alaska Legislature this spring, Department of Public Safety officials said attrition rates in the department have declined in recent years, but retention and recruitment are a top priority.

“We offer an extremely competitive salary for the Alaska State Troopers. And we also hear from a lot of our lateral applicants that they’re looking for an environment where the community, elected officials, and command staff support law enforcement. And that’s definitely the case in Alaska right now,” McDaniel said by phone Thursday. “So those are the main drivers that we are hearing anecdotally from applicants when they apply and when our recruiting team speaks with them.”

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(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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