Denver City Council members hit pause on proposal to give $400 vaccination bonuses to city workers

Lawmakers had some issues with the proposal, including concerns about how quickly the idea was sprung on them.

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

It’s not an incentive. It’s a reward.

That’s how the city’s Chief Financial Officer Brendan Hanlon framed a proposal to give city workers who got a required COVID-19 vaccination a $400 bonus.

But it wasn’t a convincing enough argument for Denver City Council members — not yet, anyway — as members of the finance committee on Tuesday voted unanimously to delay two bills allowing the bonuses to go to city workers. Instead of forwarding it to the full City Council, lawmakers voted to discuss the two bills when they meet again Sept. 28.

The bills would allow the city to use $5 million from the city’s contingency fund to pay for the bonuses and modify a city law to allow the government to provide the money. The proposal to give the bonuses was made public last week.

The decision came after a nearly one-hour conversation. While they applauded the work city employees have done during the pandemic, some council members felt Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration didn’t do enough to give city lawmakers a heads up about the idea.

Councilmember Jolon Clark went so far as to say he felt he and his colleagues were being put into a corner to approve it. He didn’t like how the bonus was being structured, noting it would treat people who got it months ago the same as people who went out and got it shortly before the mandate required it.

“I think there are a lot of ways this could have been done and presented that this (would be) a slam dunk for me,” Clark said.

Councilmember Paul Kashmann was slightly more abrupt.

“I think this is poorly conceived,” Kashmann said.

Hancock’s administration announced a vaccination order for all city employees last month. It requires workers to be completely vaccinated by Sept. 30. The city has more than 11,000 employees, and at least 77 percent of full-time workers have been vaccinated, according to the most recently available numbers. The citywide vaccination rate sits at 80 percent among eligible people.

About 7 percent of city employees filed for exemptions based on religious or medical grounds. People whose exemptions were approved will be eligible for the bonus as well. Karla Pierce, assistant director of employment and labor law section at the City Attorney’s Office, said people who successfully got an exemption are still eligible for the bonus due to federal laws banning employee discrimination based on religion.

Pierce said about 400 to 450 city workers have successfully received exemptions. Councilmembers Kendra Black and Robin Kniech were both critical of the religious exemptions and its potential misuse. Pierce said these requests were closely scrutinized.

“It feels to me like paying a reward to someone for their religion, and that is not, I don’t think we in government should be in the business of doing, is paying you because of your religious beliefs,” Kniech said. “We should be paying people who have taken active steps to prevent the transmission of COVID.”

CFO Hanlon said the $400 bonus was based on finance department rules on capping rewards amounts. He said that it’s not an incentive to get a vaccine, but rather a reward for city employees who already got their shot. He noted it wasn’t meant to make up for money lost for the mandatory furlough days.

Full-time, part-time, uniformed, civilian and on-call employees would be eligible for the extra money. Hancock and other elected officials, including City Council members, aren’t eligible for the bonus because it’s being treated as salary, and elected official’s salaries can’t change within a term.

The city’s contingency fund, where the money paying for the bonuses would come from, is money the city sets aside for unexpected expenses. If the $5 million gets final approval from City Council, that fund will be left with a $17.4 million balance, according to city documents.

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