Ala. city approves $2.5K 'Heroes Bonuses' for first responders

The bonuses, funded through the city's $20.53 million City Hall allocation from the American Rescue Plan, will be paid at two different levels


Jason Morton
The Tuscaloosa News, Ala.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — After a week of consideration, city leaders enthusiastically advanced a series of bonuses for city employees who worked — often with dangerous conditions — during the coronavirus pandemic in Tuscaloosa.

But seven days wasn't enough to assuage all concerns over providing a incentive payment to encourage City Hall workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The estimated 674 workers classified as Level 2 would get $2,500 each. These are the workers who were on the front lines of the epidemic — police officers, firefighters, emergency crews and sanitation workers, among them — who worked in uncontrolled environments, in close contact with the public or otherwise were put at higher risk of encountering infected residents or contaminated materials because of their city-based jobs.
The estimated 674 workers classified as Level 2 would get $2,500 each. These are the workers who were on the front lines of the epidemic — police officers, firefighters, emergency crews and sanitation workers, among them — who worked in uncontrolled environments, in close contact with the public or otherwise were put at higher risk of encountering infected residents or contaminated materials because of their city-based jobs. (Pixabay)

That, it appears, will take at least one more week of discussion.

"It's a terrible thing. People need to get vaccinated," said first-term District 3 Councilman Norman Crow. "I don't think we should mandate it, but it's the best way to fight (COVID-19).

"We need to get more people to get vaccinated. Period."

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox has proposed committing more than $2 million in bonuses as a reward to city employees for their work during the coronavirus pandemic.

And to urge the almost 62% of municipal employees who have yet to get the COVID-19 vaccine — a previous report of 43% was incorrect — the mayor is suggesting $250 for each of the city's nearly 1,200 workers.

On Tuesday, the City Council's finance committee unanimously endorsed the mayor's "Heroes Bonus" plan. It now goes to the full council for adoption and will be paid out according to staff recommendations, though finance committee chair Councilman Lee Busby suggested it be paid out before the Christmas holiday season, as Maddox initially suggested.

"Sooner," Busby said, "is better."

No elected officials are eligible for either the vaccine incentive or bonus payments.

The bonuses, funded through the city's $20.53 million City Hall allocation from the American Rescue Plan, will be paid at two different levels.

Level 1 workers, of which there are an estimated 566, would get $1,250 each. These are the city workers who worked at City Hall or offices during the pandemic but did not face extreme or daily dangers.

The estimated 674 workers classified as Level 2 would get $2,500 each. These are the workers who were on the front lines of the epidemic — police officers, firefighters, emergency crews and sanitation workers, among them — who worked in uncontrolled environments, in close contact with the public or otherwise were put at higher risk of encountering infected residents or contaminated materials because of their city-based jobs.

"They couldn't take a day off — and they didn't," the mayor said last week. "And they were exposed to situations where no amount of (personal protection equipment) would keep them safe."

But these workers also are among those with the highest percentage of unvaccinated employees in City Hall.

Less than one-third — 32.1% — of Infrastructure and Public Service workers, which includes garbage collection and recycling crews, among others, have been inoculated against COVID-19, and just more than one-third — 37.7% — of those within the Tuscaloosa police and fire departments have been vaccinated.

And that, Maddox said, is one reason he's supporting the vaccination incentive plan.

If approved, the mayor suggests offering the payments to 500 or so employees who already have been vaccinated, and it would cost about $800,000 — also paid through the city's American Rescue Plan proceeds — if all of the city's nearly 1,240 employees elected to receive the vaccine.

While that is unlikely, Maddox said he's hopeful that some incentive would be enough to encourage some.

"Our goal with this is to see (whether) this could be something that maybe puts employee across the threshold ...," Maddox said. "There is nothing scientific about what we're proposing. We do not know if this will work or if it will move the needle.

"But we are desperate to get our employees to engage in this vaccination for themselves, for their families and for our city."

Beyond the personal healthcare of its workers, Maddox said another goal of the vaccine incentives is to reduce costs to local taxpayers.

Vaccinated employees are less likely to be out of work for prolonged periods if they contract COVID-19, and higher vaccination rates could lead to reduced levels of overtime since the shifts of many workers, particularly first responders, cannot go unfilled.

That point rang true with District 3 Councilman John Faile, a retired Tuscaloosa police officer also serving his first term.

"There's people working a lot of hours, and it's pretty stressful if you have to work two shifts a day every other day," Faile said. "And you don't make good decisions if you're worn out."

Other council members, like Councilwoman Raevan Howard-Williams of District 2, supported the vaccination incentive's voluntary basis.

"We're not making it mandatory. It's just an incentive," Howard-Williams said.

Busby, however, was the most vocally skeptical of the incentives, questioning issues like whether it was something a local government should do or whether asking employees their vaccination status was in a "gray area" of violating their individual medical privacy rights.

"This is important because, I think most of us don't know," Busby said. "Whatever you want to hear, just turn to the station you want to listen to on TV and you can get those answers."

He also said it would be helpful to know just how many COVID-19 inpatients at DCH Health System hospitals were not vaccinated before becoming infected.

Last month, as COVID-19 infections began to spike, DCH Health System Chief Operating Office Paul Betz said more than 90% of the hospital's COVID-19 inpatients had not been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus that causes the disease.

Data was not immediately available as to how many of the 136 hospitalized Tuesday with COVID-19 had not been vaccinated.

"If we have that data, it's just one more tool in the box," Busby said.

District 1 Councilman Matthew Wilson said he was able to see the pros and cons of incentivizing the vaccine.

But, eventually, the decision ultimately falls to the individual, he said — incentives or not.

"I see both perspectives," Wilson said, "but when do we come to the point that this is your personal responsibility to be vaccinated?"

___

(c)2021 The Tuscaloosa News, Ala

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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