Sep 15, 2021 - COVID

Denver city employees' vaccine payout program put on ice

Illustration of a wallet with hundred-dollar bills inside it, and a syringe being stuck into it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock may have made a promise he can’t keep.

Driving the news: On Tuesday, a blindsided Denver City Council committee hit the brakes on Hancock’s proposal to pull $5 million worth of taxpayer money from the city’s rainy day fund and disperse it as $400 bonuses to city employees who are fully immunized against COVID-19 or exempt from getting the vaccine.

  • Hancock told city staff about the bonuses in an email last Friday and assured them the rewards would be received as soon as Oct. 29.
  • Yes, but: The mayor hadn’t yet shared his plan with council members, who must approve the payouts before employees can pocket them.
  • Now council members are scolding Hancock’s administration for painting them into "a corner" and are refusing to advance his plans until significant changes are made.
  • Another committee discussion is scheduled for Sept. 28.

Why it matters: With only two weeks left until city employees are required to meet Hancock’s Sept. 30 vaccine mandate deadline, hundreds of people charged with protecting and serving the public — including police officers — remain unvaccinated.

State of play: As of Friday, at least 465 city employees had been approved for vaccine exemptions. Another 225 waiver requests remained under review, and only 57 had been denied.

  • "Almost anything" an employee claims as a religious belief "has to just be accepted," Karla Pierce, a labor law specialist in the Denver City Attorney’s Office, told council members Tuesday.

What they’re saying: "It feels to me like paying a reward to someone for their religion" instead of "paying people who have taken steps to prevent the transmission of COVID," at-large council member Robin Kniech said.

  • Other council members, including Jolon Clark and Paul Kashmann, criticized the plan for failing to factor in equity. Hancock’s administration said bonuses would be applied equally, across all incomes.
  • Council members also expressed frustration that the same reward would go to people who received the vaccine proactively versus those who were forced or incentivized with mandates and pay boosts.

What’s next: Members of the Hancock administration agreed to work with council members to amend the proposal ahead of its second committee hearing later this month.

  • But the city’s 2022 budget negotiations kick into high gear this week, so finding time to come to a compromise ahead of the hearing could prove tricky.

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