An effort to incentivize employees of Volusia County government to get COVID-19 vaccinations fell apart at the Sept. 21 County Council meeting.
Currently, all county-government employees are eligible for 16 hours of paid leave to be tested if they suspect they have COVID-19.
The proposed rule would have required employees who were not vaccinated to use personal leave time if they tested positive for COVID-19 and had to miss work. Vaccinated employees, on the other hand, would be eligible for 40 hours of paid leave if they tested positive for the virus.
The costs — budgeted at $245,000 — would have been covered by funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. The county has some $107 million of the federal funding available.
“We’re trying to get the people to take the COVID shot — we’re not requiring them to. But to give them a little extra if they did get the COVID shots,” Volusia County Council Member Ben Johnson said. “It comes out of our budgets when people are off sick, no matter whether it’s overtime, whether it’s other medical costs, or whatever it is.”
The county currently employs 2,038 full-time workers and 181 part-time/intermittent employees. The numbers do not include employees at the Elections Office, Sheriff’s Office, or Tax Collector. Those departments set their own leave policies.
County Council Member Heather Post objected.
“This money was given to us from the federal government to address COVID. Not specifically to address COVID in the unvaccinated and vaccinated,” Post said. “I don’t like the idea of us saying we are only going to cover those who are vaccinated.”
But expanding paid sick leave to every employee would up the cost, County Manager George Recktenwald warned. He asked to use federal monies as needed, rather than setting the amount at $245,000.
“If it is the council’s will on that, the budget number would have to be increased — we don’t know what that would be at this time,” Recktenwald said. “I won’t know what that number is, but it will be a lot more than 245.”
“Talk about opening a Pandora’s box,” County Chair Jeff Brower said. “I am concerned because it sounds to me like we are snuggling up to a vaccine mandate. And I don’t agree with the science that says everybody who gets vaccinated is safe.”
His comment prompted a brief foray into the wild world of COVID-19 information — and misinformation — before Post reeled the discussion back in.
“I’m not getting into the discussion of vaccine mandates and everything else,” Post said. “The point of the motion … is just to say if our employees get COVID, period, we would take care of them.”
In local government, the word “mandate” is a trigger word. County Council Member Barb Girtman was quick to clarify.
“I think the word ‘mandate’ is inaccurate. No one has made any statement of mandating anyone to do anything; everything is optional. It’s just whether or not you access an incentive or you don’t,” Girtman said.
Girtman, Johnson, and Council Member Billie Wheeler were all for the incentive and against amending the plan. They were outvoted by Post, Brower, Council Member Danny Robins and Council Member Fred Lowry.
The 4-3 vote means all county workers — not just those who are vaccinated — will get 40 hours of paid sick leave if they contract COVID-19.
Lowry has been subject to some controversy over conspiracy theories he publicly promoted about the virus. At the Sept. 7 County Council meeting, Brower announced Lowry’s absence was due to COVID-19, prompting an immediate slew of news stories and online commentary.
“At the last meeting, the chair took it upon himself to update everyone in the world on my health and hospitalization status. The chair did not have my permission to do that,” Lowry bristled. He attended the Sept. 21 meeting on Zoom.
Lowry clarified that he had been briefly hospitalized and that at the time of Brower’s announcement, he had not informed all the members of his family and his church.
“I had to spend the afternoon trying to clarify to them that I was not at death’s door, and so forth,” Lowry said. “I think we have to be very careful of sharing that personal information, especially when you don’t have permission.”