After turning down a slew of COVID-19-related motions last week, the Pima County Board of Supervisors approved several measures Monday to incentivize vaccinations for county employees and support school districts with mask mandates.
The board voted 3-2 to provide vaccination incentives to employees, including a one-time $300 payment and three days of leave.
Supervisors Steve Christy and Matt Heinz — whose motion to mandate vaccines for county employees failed last week — opposed the motion.
As of Aug. 13, the county received 2,737 requests for “I’m vaccinated” badges, which is the only way the county verifies employees’ vaccination status, according to a memo from County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. That’s about 40% of the county’s 6,957-member workforce.
The vaccinations confirmed so far result in $821,100 being disbursed to county employees, which Huckelberry says will come from the county’s American Rescue Plan funds. The county received nearly $102 million in its first tranche of the federal COVID-19 relief dollars in May.
After assessing the success of vaccine incentives, the supervisors will consider disincentives for unvaccinated county employees at its Sept. 7 meeting. Huckelberry recommends eliminating unvaccinated workers’ health insurance premium discounts (which amount to $35 every pay period), as well as surging base insurance plans by 30%, or $25.51, each pay period.
“What I’d like to see first is what are the effects of the positives that we can put in place before we consider the whole package, which includes the negatives,” Supervisor Rex Scott said.
Chair Sharon Bronson, who expressed concern about staff leaving the county over vaccination disincentives, wants to review the county’s vacancy numbers when discussing the impact of the new vaccine incentives in September.
“Most of the people that are leaving are leaving to the private sector,” she said. “We pay minimum wage of $15, so this is going to have an impact on our workforce.”
Legal assistance for schools
The board turned down a motion to mandate masks in K-12 schools last week, largely because of a new state law that prohibits school districts from requiring face coverings. Some districts, including Tucson Unified, have required masking anyway.
But the board approved a motion Monday to provide legal assistance to school districts if the state decides to sue them.
Supervisors voted 4-1, with Christy opposing, to have the county’s public health department give “technical assistance, tailored public health orders, and expert testimony” to local school districts mandating masks and to join as a party in any lawsuits the state files against them.
“What (the motion) really does is it encourages local school boards to make a decision for their own communities and make the best choice for the health of their school,” Supervisor Adelita Grijalva said. “It just provides that support should they want to move forward in that direction.”
But before the vote to help out school districts with legal troubles, Heinz reintroduced his motion to mandate masks in county K-12 schools. Without enough support from his colleagues, Heinz reduced his motion to include only one provision and not a mask mandate.
Supervisors ultimately voted on the section of the motion that would have the county potentially file suit against the state for its law banning school mask mandates, or join the Arizona School Boards Association in its existing lawsuit challenging the statute.
The motion failed in the same vote as last week: 3-2 with Supervisors Heinz and Grijalva voting yes. However, Scott said he would “consider it at a separate meeting.”
New executive order
Heinz submitted a proposal last week to mandate vaccinations for all health care workers in the county. That motion was continued to Monday’s meeting but was delayed again after news broke of a new executive order from Gov. Doug Ducey.
That order states local jurisdictions that mandate vaccines are subject to “a class 3 misdemeanor” and “legal action by individuals for violation of their rights under Arizona law.”
The order comes after Ducey signed legislation in June barring local jurisdictions from mandating vaccines, which does not go into effect until Sept. 29.
Lesley Lukach, deputy county attorney, said her office needs more time to review the executive order to determine the county’s authority to mandate vaccines.
“I’m not opposed to this at all,” Grijalva said. “But I am concerned that the executive order prohibits the county from being able to do it, and it changes the game a little bit.”
The board voted unanimously to delay a vote on mandating vaccines for health-care workers until its Sept. 7 meeting.
Virtual meetings continue
On July 6, the board voted to begin meeting in person starting Aug. 16. On Monday, the supervisors retracted that decision in a 4-1 vote to “continue virtual meetings for the foreseeable future.”
“It’s not so much a comfort for me personally; it’s bringing members of the community together in what could be a super spreader moment,” Grijalva said. “I just don’t think that that’s wise.”
Reasoning that appropriate safeguards are in place, Scott was the sole vote to return to in-person meetings.
“I think that we can protect anybody who wants to come to our meetings, as long as they’re willing to comply with the safeguards that we put in place on county property,” he said.
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