Hillsborough offers $500, extra days off to vaccinated county workers

Unvaccinated county staff will have to take weekly COVID-19 tests and wear masks at work.
Andrew Ranger, 30, displays his bandage after getting a COVID-19 vaccine dose at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Thursday, June 24, 2021.
Andrew Ranger, 30, displays his bandage after getting a COVID-19 vaccine dose at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Thursday, June 24, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sept. 13, 2021

TAMPA — Hillsborough County will sweeten the carrot it’s using to entice county government employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.

In a Monday email to county workers, County administrator Bonnie Wise said employees would receive $500 and two extra days off if they submit documentation of receiving the coronavirus inoculation. Previously, the county offered a $50 wellness reward and one floating holiday as incentive.

But the county isn’t relying exclusively on the carrot approach. There’s a stick component, too.

Employees who have not submitted their vaccination card by Oct. 15 will have to submit to weekly testing beginning Oct. 18 and will be required to wear a mask while at work. Or, unvaccinated employees can submit proof of COVID-19 antibodies on a monthly basis without the testing requirement. That is similar to the rules announced previously by the city of Tampa for its employees.

Coincidentally, the email came about three hours after Gov. Ron DeSantis said local governments that mandate vaccinations would face daily fines up to $5,000 for each occurrence. It’s not clear whether the governor’s threatened fines would apply to Hillsborough’s plan.

Related: DeSantis threatens 'millions' in fines for cities and counties for vaccine mandates

As of the end of last week, Hillsborough County had 1,020 employees infected and 2,452 workers out on quarantine since the pandemic began in March 2020.

“This effect to our workforce directly hinders our ability to deliver quality service over the long-term, impacts our health care costs, and expands our overtime budgets,” Wise said.

As of Sept. 9, 52.6 percent of the more than 4,000 county employees had been vaccinated. Those that qualified for the earlier incentives also will get the newly announced reward.

“It’s just an important safety measure, to me, for anybody in Hillsborough County that serves the public,” Commission Chairwoman Pat Kemp said last week about employee vaccinations.

The county already required workers hired after Aug. 30 to show proof of vaccination. The requirement, Wise said, has caused a few applicants to withdraw from consideration for employment with the county.

“The bigger concern is getting people vaccinated and keeping the public and employees safe,” she said.

Across the region, local governments are using varying approaches to employee vaccinations.

Pasco County is using federal American Rescue Plan funding to offer $500 to any fully vaccinated employee. The county said that a little more than half of county employees have reported being vaccinated so far. The county also has tallied 450 positive COVID-19 cases among employees since the start of the pandemic, including four deaths.

County administrator Dan Biles said Pasco has had more than $3.4 million in COVID-related health insurance claims since the pandemic started. That makes the incentives a good business decision as well as something that could help employees, he said.

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Pinellas County is still discussing options regarding employee vaccinations, administrator Barry Burton said last week. He said all options are voluntary but said it was too early to discuss further. Clearwater also is not offering vaccine incentives or doing any mandated testing or vaccinations, according to Joelle Castelli, director of public communications.

In the city of St. Petersburg, the focus has been on educating employees about vaccines, including having employees watch a video town hall with medical experts about the coronavirus. The city is taking a wait-and-see approach before deciding on incentives or vaccine requirements.

“One of the things I’ve learned is beware of the unintended consequences that can come and bite you,” Mayor Rick Kriseman said.

He questioned how much the city would have to pay in incentives in order to get significantly more people vaccinated. The city has approximately 3,500 full-, part-time and seasonal employees.

“How do you say to taxpayers, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to repair roads or infrastructure because we want to make sure all employees are vaccinated,’” Kriseman said.

Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report.

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