(The Center Square) - A Denver City Council committee gave its initial approval to two bills that would pay bonuses and benefits to vaccinated and essential city employees.
One bill would transfer $5 million from Denver's contingency reserves to fund $400 one-time bonus payments for city employees who got vaccinated against COVID-19 before Sept. 30. Denver's Department of Finance originally proposed the bonus program two weeks ago, but it was postponed for further discussion.
The other bill would apportion $8.8 million of funds received under the federal American Rescue Plan to provide hazard and premium pay benefits to city employees who work in congregate settings or are around populations vulnerable to COVID-19.
The Finance and Governance Committee passed the bonus program by a 4-2 vote margin with Councilmembers Jolon Clark, District 7, and Chris Hinds, District 10, voting against it.
The premium pay benefit program passed unanimously. Both programs could be finalized as early as October 25.
Some council members took issue with the bonus program's aim and optics, arguing that it sends the wrong message to many Denver residents.
"Giving a bonus for something that everybody is expected to do furthers the idea that getting vaccinated is a "bonus"; it is an extra thing that people can do," Clark said during the meeting. "We need to be focused on letting all Denver residents know that getting vaccinated is not something extra - it is the responsibility of responsible citizens."
Denver's Department of Public Health and Environment issued a public health order August 2 that required all city employees to be fully vaccinated by the end of September.
As of October 1, Denver Chief Financial Officer Brendan Hanlon told City Council that 98.7% of uniformed or career service city employees had complied with the order. More than 650 employees received a religious exemption, and another 14 exemptions are under review.
Councilman Hinds said he "certainly" supports rewarding city employees for their contributions during COVID-19, but that he has concerns about the program's transparency.
To qualify for the $400 bonus, city employees would have to submit their proof of vaccination before a deadline and couldn't violate any future public health orders through December 10.
Payments would be disbursed around Thanksgiving for employees who did not receive an exemption. Those with an exemption would receive their bonus around Christmas time.
However, the program doesn't explicitly require city managers to report noncompliance that could make an employee ineligible for the bonus.
The new hazard and premium pay program could pay up to $2,500 per employee.
According to estimates from the city's Department of Finance, the program would apply to approximately 45% of the city's workforce, or more than 4,200 employees.
Hanlon told City Council on Tuesday that the city is intentionally using the words "hazard" and "premium pay" to maximize the funding Denver can receive under federal pandemic relief programs.