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County to offer employees $635 bonus to get vaccinated

by Caitlan Butler | November 19, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.
The Union County Quorum Court is seen in this News-Times file photo.

The Union County Quorum Court voted Thursday to offer a bonus to county employees who choose to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The idea originated in the body's Public Service Committee.

"You cannot force anybody to get a shot or anything -- you cannot do that," committee chair and District 6 Justice of the Peace Cecil Polk said. "It's an incentive; it's their choice."

The committee on Thursday presented an ordinance that would allow for incentive bonuses of $635.26 to all full- and part-time county employees, as well as elected officials serving Union County, who can provide proof that they are fully vaccinated against the virus.

"We wanted to come up with an amount that showed that we meant we actually wanted to take care of those who are going above and beyond," District 3 JP Greg Harrison said.

The ordinance utilizes the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) definition of "fully vaccinated," which calls for individuals to have received either two doses of the Pfizer and/or Moderna COVID vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and to have waited two weeks after receiving their final vaccine shots, allowing time for the vaccines to fully kick in.

County workers and officials that wish to receive the bonus will need to show their supervisor or department head their vaccine card and fill out a form verifying their vaccination, which must then be signed by their supervisor. The information will then need to be submitted to the Union County Judge's office.

Employees hired after Nov. 18 won't be eligible for the bonus, per the ordinance.

The bonus offer will expire on April 1, 2022, and applications for the bonus submitted after that date won't be approved, according to the ordinance.

District 11 JP Ross Burton asked whether the county could be legally liable if a worker medically exempted from taking the vaccine complains about being ineligible for the bonus.

"What do we do if there's a county employee, after this is passed, that walks in and says 'I've got a note from my doctor that says I don't need to take the shot?' ... From a legal standpoint, we're not subject to anything there?" Burton asked. "It's $600, so everybody's interested."

John Thomas Shepherd, who was present as legal counsel for the county on Thursday, said he believes the benefits of a vaccine incentive outweigh the risks of an employee suing successfully.

"People are always going to file lawsuits," Shepherd said. "It's not like we can say 'okay, you have an exemption, here's your $500,' because they didn't get the vaccine, which is the purpose of the money. I mean, sure it's a concern, but at the end of the day, I think ... the benefit of passing it outweighs any risk of a successful lawsuit."

District 1 JP Mike Dumas put an even finer point on the matter, noting that the cost of hiring a lawyer would likely be more than the bonus itself.

"This ordinance says that you will pay a bonus if you get a shot. If you don't get a shot, you don't get a bonus. If you don't like it, sue us," Dumas said.

Dumas, who chairs the Quorum Court's Finance Committee, noted that it would take about 30 days for employees to receive their bonuses after providing proof of their vaccination status.

The bonuses are being funded with federal monies provided in the American Rescue Plan Act. JPs also approved an ordinance appropriating $75,000 for the bonuses on Thursday, noting that a second appropriation would likely be necessary at the start of 2022.

"We feel real good about it, giving this incentive, because not only, you've still got your choice whether you want to do it or not. If you do do it, we feel like maybe we could save one employee if something happened by giving the incentive for them to get their shots," Polk said.

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