Pima County ends COVID vaccine requirements
Board of Supervisors changes benefits, penalities as new Az law takes effect
Pima County ended its requirement for employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before they can be hired, promoted or transferred as the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to end the policy. They also voted to eliminate a health insurance surcharge for unvaccinated employees but will start offering two additional paid vacation days to employees that prove they have gotten their shots against coronavirus.
State law now bans local jurisdictions such as the county from requiring COVID shots as a condition of employment. The county had such a mandate, passed last August, requiring new hires and existing employees who want to promoted or transferred to get their shots.
Gov. Doug Ducey signed the law, HB 2498, in April and it goes into effect on Friday, as that marks 90 days from the end of the last legislative session. The county board ended their vaccine requirements to comply with that law.
Supervisor Adelita Grijalva called it “an overreach by our state” but did commend the Pima County Health Department for “keeping our community safe and encouraging vaccines.”
Supervisor Rex Scott talked about “the need for counties to assert their rights under Arizona state law as being the regional public health authorities.”
“It’s not just Pima County that has concerns about moves that were made by the legislature and the governor,” Scott said.
Scott planned to bring the topic of county rights at the next County Supervisors Association of Arizona summit on legislative policy. County Board Chair Sharon Bronson said that the entire time she was on the CSA, the two biggest topics were “local control” and “stop passing the buck to us,” or shoving costs onto the county.
Supervisor Matt Heinz suggested suing the state, which Bronson shot down, saying, sarcastically, “what a great way to spend taxpayer dollars.”
The county board had the opportunity in May to end the vaccine requirement for potential hires, promotions and transfers, but denied it in favor of waiting for HB 2498, which had just been signed by Ducey, to go into effect.
In July, the county ended a vaccine requirement for temporary election workers to solve a shortage of vaccinated Republicans eligible to work on election boards.
At the beginning of the year, the county fired 56 employees, 16 of them full-time, because they failed to get vaccinated or come up with a medical or religious exemption before the Dec. 31 deadline.
Health insurance premiums
Unvaccinated Pima County employees will see the end of a health insurance surcharge that cost them about $46 per pay period, or about $1,200 a year.
The county board voted unanimously to end the surcharge. That vote was separate from the one to end the vaccine requirement.
The surcharge applied to 568 unvaccinated employees who were covered by the county’s health insurance as employees. A total of 4,400 vaccinated employees are on the county’s health insurance.
The county board approved the surcharge last September, but it applied only to unvaccinated employees on the county insurance plan effective November 2021. Unvaccinated employees with a valid medical or religious exemption were free from the surcharge.
The health care cost to Pima County for unvaccinated employees was $768 per employee per month, compared to $475 for vaccinated per employee per month. The “very serious and very expensive COVID-related morbidity” among the unvaccinated led health insurance companies to increase their premiums, according to a county memo.
Unvaccinated employees were only 11% of all employees on the county’s health care, but the total health care costs of those employees from October to the end of July was about $4,361,869, or about 17% of the total spent on health care during that time.
The difference in health care costs for vaccinated versus unvaccinated employees was “more dramatic” than what the county was expecting, County Administrator Jan Lesher wrote in the memo. The county had expected a difference of about $9 to $46 dollars, not the additional $300 it actually cost per person per month.
Increased health insurance premiums for the unvaccinated are “driven overwhelmingly by differences in in-patient costs and specialty physician services,” according to the county memo.
At the last meeting, Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the county board, motioned for unvaccinated employees to be reimbursed for the surcharge, but the attempt was defeated.
Vaccinated Pima County employees, for their part, can now get two extra vacation days, or 16 hours of paid time off, if they turn in a documented proof of their vaccinations to human resources.
The supervisors approved the incentive to continue “encouraging a vaccinated workforce” as they ended two of their best policies for pressuring their employees to vaccinate.
Christy called the extra vacation days “paying (employees) not to work,” saying “this is an individual choice to take the vaccine or not, and it should not be at taxpayer expense to incentivize such an activity as vaccination.”
The incentive deal came as a separate motion, just like the motions to end the vaccine requirement and the surcharge, all made by Christy. He had separated the three so he could vote down the vacation days but keep the surcharge and end the vaccine requirement.
His motion to vote against the extra vacation days died for lack of a second, but Bronson agreed with a point that Christy had made about the cost of the incentives, saying she needed to see a fiscal note, or some information on the cost to the county for the program.
A substitute motion to approve the paid time off incentive passed 4-1 after Bronson “reluctantly” voted in favor of it, she said during the meeting.
Pima County employees who get flu shots earn points, which, when enough are collected, can give them discounts on their bi-weekly medical premiums. This is through a program that was already in place.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.