Criticism from City Council members Tuesday delayed consideration of Mayor Michael Hancock’s proposal to give $400 bonuses to city employees vaccinated against COVID-19 .
The council's governance panel punted the proposal to a Sept. 28 meeting after over an hour of debate. City staffers were expected to amend the measure, which would use $5 million from the city’s general fund to give $400 “rewards” to city employees who comply with a COVID-19 vaccination mandate by Sept. 30, before it returns to the panel.
Bonuses would be offered to employees who are fully vaccinated and workers deemed exempt from the vaccination requirement.
Criticism from council members Tuesday centered around bonuses for workers who obtain exemptions to the city's vaccine mandate. The city allows exemptions on the basis of religion and medical conditions.
“We should be paying people who have taken active steps to prevent the transmission of COVID,” said Councilwoman Robin Kniech. “Why are we not asking those who are unvaccinated to earn (the bonus) by doing other things that prevent the spread of COVID?”
City Attorney Karla Pierce said the city added employees exempt from the vaccine mandate to the bonus proposal to comply with federal laws that forbid religious discrimination in the workplace.
Kniech argued the number of employees now claiming they practice religions forbidding vaccination doesn't align with Denver’s religious makeup.
Pierce said the city employees expressing political or philosophical opposition to the vaccine aren't exempt, but federal standards for religious exemption were “very broad."
“It’s really difficult to discern when someone has a personally, sincerely held religious belief,” Pierce said. “We have to follow the law and the law doesn’t allow us to make very many interpretations ourselves. We have to accept what the employee says.”
As of last week, 10,285 workers representing 72 percent of city employees had verified their vaccination status, officials said. That group included 465 workers who got religious exemptions and another 225 requests for exemption under review.
Some council members opposed the whole idea of using tax money for the employee bonuses.
“This is money that all taxpayers paid into ... many of whom suffered from the pandemic and many of whom, to be good citizens, got vaccinated,” said Councilman Paul Kashmann. “But they’re only paying a small group of citizenry for doing the same thing.”
Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer asked how the bonuses could stimulate Denver’s economy, saying tax payers “need to know they’re getting something in return.”
City officials portrayed the bonuses as a “reward,” saying the program isn't intended to be a stimulus or an incentive for employees to get vaccinated.
Under the bonus proposal requirements, employees must be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30, meaning they have to get their final shot and submit proof by Wednesday. The bonus wouldn't be offered to employees hired after this month, according to city officials.
“There is no expectation that spending $5 million will get a single additional employee vaccinated,” complained Councilman Jolon Clark.
The bonus proposal wouldn't apply to elected officials.
If it gets past the committee, the proposal would face two council votes. If the council approved the measure, the city would need another month to pay out bonuses.
The mayor’s office sent an email to city employees Friday, informing them of the proposed bonuses. Several council members said they discovered the proposal through the email and called the announcement “inappropriate.”
“We were told secondarily, yet it hinges on us approving this,” said Council President Stacie Gilmore. “That, historically, has not been the way that the administration has worked with city council. … It’s not a pleasant seat to be in when you have thousands of city employees looking for this reward.”