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Pima County rescinds vaccine mandate for new hires

New hires of Pima County government will no longer be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 starting Saturday, when the health insurance surcharge for unvaccinated county employees will also expire.

The Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 Tuesday to eliminate the vaccination requirement for new employees effective Sept. 24, when a state law barring local jurisdictions from mandating its their employees get vaccinated will go into effect.

The board voted unanimously to get rid of a $45.51 health insurance surcharge for unvaccinated employees. To continue incentivizing vaccinations, the board voted 4-1 to provide 16 hours of paid leave to employees who provide documentation that they received a COVID-19 booster every year.

The vaccination mandate came from a policy former County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry created in August last year that all new hires must show proof of vaccination before becoming employed by the county. The policy also applies to existing employees seeking a promotion or those transferring to a new job title.

As of Sept. 19, 86% of active employees were vaccinated, according to the county. Of unvaccinated employees, 72 have received medical or religious exemptions from the mandate and aren’t subject to its requirements.

Health insurance surcharge

In September last year, the board approved a policy to charge unvaccinated employees without a valid exemption a $45.51 surcharge in the health insurance premiums taken out of each paycheck.

According to County Administrator Jan Lesher, the surcharge has been effective. After its implementation, more than 800 employees got vaccinated by the end of 2021, says a memo she wrote to the board.

The idea behind the health insurance surcharge, in addition to encouraging vaccinations, was to pay for an inferred increased cost of health care for those who are unvaccinated. According to a county review of health insurance claims from Oct. 1, 2021 to July 31, unvaccinated county employees made up about 11% of all claims but comprised 17% of all costs.

Pima County paid about $768 a month in health-care costs for unvaccinated employees and $475 a month for vaccinated workers, the review states.

While the vast majority of county employees are vaccinated, 236 unvaccinated workers without valid exemptions were subject to the surcharges as of Sept. 7, according to Lesher’s memo.

The rescission of the board’s vaccination policies comes as House Bill 2498 is set to take effect 90 days after the end of the state legislative session on Sept. 24, stripping the county of its statutory authority to mandate vaccines and increase health insurance premiums for the unvaccinated.

County Supervisor Adelita Grijalva, who voted against rescinding the mandate for new hires along with Supervisor Matt Heinz, called this action “one of those overreaches of our state.”

“The Pima County Health Department and this county did a really good job of keeping our community safe and encouraging vaccines and doing what we needed to do in order to make the decisions that were in the best interests of our county,” she said, later adding, “It is incredibly frustrating for us as a governing body not to be able to have local control over the issues that affect our community.”

Supervisor Steve Christy, who has opposed COVID-related mandates throughout the pandemic, voted to approve rescinding vaccination requirements and health insurance upcharges, but voted against providing 16 hours of paid time off to workers who show proof of yearly COVID-19 vaccinations.

“It’s basically paying people not to work,” Christy said. “And this is an individual choice to take the vaccine or not, and it should not be at taxpayer expense to incentivize such an activity of vaccination.”

Chair Sharon Bronson shared concerns about the cost of providing extra time-off to vaccinated workers when a cost analysis of the incentive was not provided to the board, but voted to pass the motion “reluctantly.”

Contact reporter Nicole Ludden at nludden@tucson.com


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