The Pima County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved hitting unvaccinated employees in the wallet if they don’t get a COVID-19 shot in the next three weeks.
In a 4-1 vote, with District 4 Supervisor Steve Christy opposed, the board approved a disincentive package for unvaccinated employees that includes mandatory weekly COVID-19 testing; eliminating a health insurance premium healthy lifestyle discount (which will increase insurance premiums paid by employees up to $35 per pay period); and adding a $25.51 surcharge to unvaccinated employees in all tier levels to cover medical expense costs related to contracting COVID-19.
The total disincentive amount for county employees who are unvaccinated would be about $61 per pay period, or $1,573 per year, according to a memo from County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. Unvaccinated employees with a valid medical or religious exemption would not be subject to any additional insurance charges.
The earliest the disenctivies could go into effect would be Oct. 9, aligning with the first pay period of the month, but more time might be needed to sort through individual cases, Huckelberry said. The county expects to have the disincentives in place no later than the first pay period in November.
Christy said penalizing employees who choose to remain unvaccinated against COVID-19 “interferes with their right to have choices with their medical procedures.”
Christy also took issue with the policy’s punishment of unvaccinated employees simply because they would increase the country’s health care costs.
“If the whole motive is to take it out on (unvaccinated employees) because they’re causing our health care policy to expand and be more expensive, then I’m certain there are other areas of employees that are costing just as much for our current health care cost, and that isn’t even addressed,” Christy said.
The move to implement financial disincentives comes almost a month after the board’s decision to implement a one-time, $300 incentive and three days’ leave for employees who were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 1 – an incentive that Huckelberry cited was working “amazingly well.”
Prior to the incentives taking effect on Aug. 16, the running total of vaccinated county employees was around 2,865, or about 43 percent of the county’s workforce, Huckleberry said. As of Sept. 3, the number was 4,437, or 66 percent.
Despite the success, District 5 Supervisor Adelita Grijalva said she remains concerned about the proportion of unvaccinated individuals in certain departments, particularly the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, which reported a 30 percent vaccination rate among its 1,354 employees as of Aug. 27.
For departments that have less than a 70 percent vaccination rate, Huckleberry said his office will redouble efforts to ensure employees have a clear understanding of vaccine incentives and disincentives, and how to confirm their vaccination status or request an exemption.
Huckelberry said his office would also provide weekly updates on county employee vaccination levels moving forward, and at the request of District 1 Supervisor Rex Scott, would gather data on vaccine hesitancy and vaccine resistance among county employees.
In 4-1 vote, with Christy opposed, the board approved an additional $2 million to be allocated to Paradigm Labs to increase COVID-19 vaccination services in Pima County.
According to the contract, the money will supplement the Pima County Health Department’s vaccination efforts by adding another vaccinator for state and mobile Points of Distribution (PODs) as the county’s vaccine supply grows, and the health department’s vaccine efforts shift to smaller, mobile clinics that are “best able to reach minority and disabled populations.”
Along the same lines, the board also approved a $2 million contract with Jot Properties to provide hotel shelter services for COVID-positive asylum seekers. Funding for the shelter comes from the Shelter National Board Program Fund, part of the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
Under the contract, the Red Roof Inn Tucson South, near Irvington and Alvernon, will exclusively lease its 117-room hotel to Pima County for an initial four-month period. According to a memo, COVID-positive migrants entering the hotel shelter will be direct referrals from the Casa Alitas Welcome Center, as approved by the health department.
Two other COVID-19 agenda items related to vaccine mandates for Pima County healthcare workers and face mask requirements for public indoor settings were not discussed after both were withdrawn by District 2 Supervisor Matt Heinz.
The next Board of Supervisors meeting is at 9 a.m. Sept. 21. The meeting will be livestreamed on Pima County’s Facebook page at facebook.com/pimacountyarizona.