Gainesville commission flips, will pay out incentives to employees who get COVID shots

·5 min read

Gainesville’s employees are now eligible for a $250 incentive payment if they voluntarily show they are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, making good on an initial offer that the city made but later withdrew out of concern it would be against the law.

The commission has been trying to figure out how to battle the latest surge in the omicron variant that complies with state laws.

The Gainesville City Commission on Monday approved of Commissioner Harvey Ward’s three-pronged motion to:

  • Pay out a one-time incentive payment of $250 to employees who are fully vaccinated.

  • Provide each of the city’s approximately 2,400 employees with two, at-home COVID test kits.

  • Urge University of Florida Kent Fuchs to reinstate UF’s Screen, Test and Protect program, including the COVID dashboard.

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UF’s Screen, Test and Protect program, in partnership with the Florida Department of Health, has handled COVID-19 testing, diagnosing and contact tracing for all students, faculty and staff since May 5, 2020.

But as of Jan. 1, 2022, the Student Health Care Center took over testing and vaccinations. And contact tracing, with isolation and quarantine, is now being coordinated and overseen by the Florida Department of Health.

The City Commission last August agreed to pay out a $250 incentive to all employees who have had at least their first dose of a vaccine by 5 p.m. on Sept. 14.

But the money was never paid out.

In December, the city of Gainesville notified employees that it had rescinded its offer to pay a $250 payment to employees who get their COVID-19 vaccinations after the city’s legal staff concluded that state law prevents them from making the payments.

However, other counties in Florida have continued to make incentive payments to employees.

City commissioners had said they trusted the city attorney's legal advice.

But a spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a previous statement that doesn't understand Gainesville's logic in saying that the state is prohibiting the incentive payments.

"It is unclear why the city of Gainesville believes that these (state law) provisions, which prohibit vaccination requirements or mandates, would prohibit incentive payments," said spokeswoman Christina Pushaw in an emailed statement.

Ward said Thursday that the goal is to increase vaccinations for city employees, pointing out that science indicates that vaccinated people are less likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19.

“I want our city workers healthy,” he said.

Ward’s motion initially said the city would mail the two testing kits to the homes of every employee, but he removed that wording after several commissioners expressed concerns.

He explained that the reason he wanted the kits mailed was because he didn’t want any employee to feel uncomfortable asking for a test kit at the work place.

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos, pointing out that he supports the city providing home test kits, said he was concerned about the price of mailing out two kits to thousands of city workers, saying it would be “creating a massive bureaucracy.”

But Mayor Lauren Poe said the city could just go ahead and mail out the kits to the homes of employees who want it delivered that way and distribute the rest of them at the work place.

The commission left the issue of what constitutes “fully vaccinated” open ended, and left it up to staff to determine whether that means someone who gets their first two shots or those who get those as well as a booster.

Commissioner David Arreola said he supports the at-home testing as he’s heard about people having difficulty getting timely COVID tests.

“I absolutely believe this is the wrong time for UF to be shutting down Screen, Test and Protect,” Arreola said.

Alachua County is also taking steps to address to omicron surge. The county is requiring staff to mask up as well as people coming into attend county meetings. The county is also paying out $100 incentive payments per shot for employees.

Alachua County is also concerned about omicron causing a spike in employees calling in sick that affects the delivery of services. "We are up to 31 cases (of employee absences)," county spokesman Mark Sexton said in a text Thursday. "Not critical interruption at this point."

The commission on Thursday also voted not to award more than $3 million in tax money to a private developer to renovate a plaza for a grocery store in East Gainesville. Staff told commissioners that the developer, Fred Washington of Southern Accommodations, had not done the necessary due diligence or submitted the needed documents for the tax money to be spent on the project.

In June of last year, a majority on the Gainesville City Commission expressed excitement about a Bravo community grocery store proposed to be developed in a plaza at 2302 Southeast Hawthorne Road.

It's in an area of town that has been identified as a “food desert," which is an urban area where it is difficult to buy affordable or fresh foods.

Washington said he only had a couple of days to submit the needed documents and asked for 30 days to convince Bravo, which had backed out of the deal, to come back to the table again.

Before leaving the meeting, Washington said he's not putting in any more proposals and vented his frustration at commissioners about how he was treated in the process.

"This is not the way to recruit business to Gainesville," he said.

This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Gainesville to pay $250 to staff who get COVID shots, offer test kits

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