"I'm thinking about that city employee that this $400, even with taxes taken out of it, is going to help them, especially at this point in time. It might help them pay for needed medical services, it might help them pay for their house note, their car note," said council president Stacie Gilmore, who voted in favor of the measure on October 5. Fellow Finance and Governance committee members Kendra Black, Robin Kniech and Debbie Ortega also approved the proposal; Chris Hinds and Jolon Clark voted against it.
If approved by the full Denver City Council on October 25, the 98.7 percent of city employees who verified their full vaccination status by the deadline of September 30 will receive an extra $400 in their November 26 paycheck. The 650-plus employees who received vaccine exemptions from the city on religious or medical grounds will receive $400 in their December 23 paychecks, as long as those employees don't violate aspects of the city's public-health order, such as mask-wearing requirements at work, before December 10. The initiative, which Mayor Michael Hancock unveiled in an email sent to all city staffers on September 10, will require Denver City Council to approve a budget allocation of $5 million to cover the award program. Hancock described the monetary award as a sign of appreciation for city employees who put their "community first."
When the proposal first came up at a September 14 Finance and Governance committee meeting, some councilmembers expressed major skepticism about the way it had been proposed without prior notice; they also debated whether those who avoided the vaccine by earning a religious exemption should be financially rewarded.
"It feels to me like paying a reward to someone for their religion, and I think that is not what we in government should be doing, and that is paying you because of your religious beliefs. We should be paying people who have taken active steps to prevent the transmission of COVID," Councilwoman Kniech said at that meeting.
"Title VII requires that anyone who’s entitled to an exemption on religious grounds, if there’s some sort of bonus program, they have to be given a reasonable path to earn that same bonus," responded Karla Pierce, assistant director of employment and labor law at the Denver City Attorney's Office. And despite the fact that major religious institutions generally support vaccines, "almost anything that someone says in terms of a sincerely held religious belief, under the law, has to be accepted by the employer under the law," Pierce noted.
Councilman Clark also expressed skepticism during that meeting, asking the Hancock administration officials presenting the proposal, "Why is this a recognition and reward for successfully not getting vaccinated?"
The concerns were so significant that the committee postponed its vote on the proposal until the October 5 committee meeting, during which Clark continued to express skepticism.
"I am still really struggling with this proposal," he said. "Giving a bonus for something that everybody should be expected to do furthers the idea that getting vaccinated is a bonus, it is an extra thing that people can do.... Getting vaccinated is not something that’s extra."
But the majority of the other councilmembers at the meeting now supported the initiative.
"I’ve had some time to reconsider the policy and give it real thought, and I no longer feel that way. I think it’s well conceived," said Councilman Paul Kashmann, who is not a voting member of the committee, but still attended the meeting. "I don’t know that this $400 payment is going to change someone’s mind who is deadset in a different direction, but from talking with some career service employees, they’re kind of excited about this 400 bucks."
Kniech came around after officials from the Department of Finance and the city attorney's office added the provision that vaccine-exempt employees need to comply with Denver public-health order mandates related to mask-wearing and testing through December 10 in order to get the money.
"I want to first acknowledge that you were responsive to the request that all employees be treated more equally in having to earn their bonus rather than getting it for doing nothing," Kniech said before the vote.
At the same committee meeting, councilmembers approved earmarking $8.8 million of American Rescue Plan Act money to give bonuses to city employees who worked during the pre-vaccine days of the COVID-19 pandemic in positions that placed them at risk of COVID-19 exposure. Under this plan, those who worked high-risk jobs between March and December 2020 could be awarded up to $2,500.