Note: This story was corrected Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, at 8:15 p.m. to reflect that Chuck Harris voted against the incentives.
Catoosa County, Georgia, government employees are now eligible to receive $500 and an additional 40 hours of paid time off for illness if they get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The Catoosa County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution 3-2 Friday that provides a one-time payment of $500 to current and future full- or part-time employees who are already vaccinated or get vaccinated before Dec. 31.
It also provides workers with an additional 40 hours of paid time off that can be used if a vaccinated employee needs to be absent from work because of a positive test for the virus or because of illness from it.
The employees of elected officials are eligible to receive these benefits, as are volunteer firefighters, but individual elected officials are not eligible. County employees who choose not to participate in the incentive program will not be penalized.
The county has 640 eligible employees, so the incentives could cost up to $320,000 in bonuses, plus the cost of the time off.
The resolution passed one day after President Joe Biden announced his administration will prepare a new mandate that would require all employers with more than 100 workers to require vaccinations or weekly testing for employees.
But the commission said Catoosa's approach is not a mandate and is instead intended to incentivize people to get vaccinated if they think it is the right choice for them.
The commission doesn't believe in mandates, according to Chair Steven Henry, and he said he does not believe in them either.
He does, however, think vaccines are the best tool available for defeating COVID-19, a tool he credited to former President Donald Trump's administration.
"I personally believe [vaccines are] the best option to get through for our county and for our country. I think, in my personal opinion, it was divine intervention that we had the right president in office last year and that's the reason we had vaccines as quick as we did. I would encourage everyone to be vaccinated, but again, this is not a mandate," Henry said. "It is only an option for our employees to encourage them to do what we feel is the right thing. In turn, we want to reward the employees who have already done the right thing."
Catoosa County is an overwhelmingly conservative county where 77% of local voters cast ballots in favor of the former president in 2020. They tend to oppose government mandates.
"We don't want to mandate. That's why we did this. The last thing we want to do is mandate that people have to do something," Henry said. "I don't think that's the government's place."
In Catoosa County, 34% of residents are fully vaccinated against coronavirus, compared to 46% statewide and 54% nationwide.
Commissioner Charlie Stephens voted against the incentives, saying he thought the decision to get vaccinated was personal and should be made without any promises of monetary compensation or benefits.
"Myself, I've been vaccinated. I did it by choice. I didn't have an incentive to do that, and my problem with this is I feel like it's the responsibility of the person to make that choice. I feel it ought to be up to the individual," Stephens said. "I don't think this $500 will make a bit of difference. Most people already are going to do it if they want it. That's my opinion. We have the liberty of choices as Americans, and we ought to have the right to make a decision like this without any monetary value involved."
Commissioner Chuck Harris also voted no.
The $500 monetary incentive payments will be paid for using American Rescue Plan Act funds, according to County Attorney Chad Young.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act was passed into law in March 2021 with no support from any Republican in the House or Senate.
The act provides municipalities with funding intended to help them recover from the pandemic. The funds can be used to address pandemic-related issues, such as providing premium pay for essential workers, supporting public health programs and relieving economic harm to workers, households, small businesses, affected industries and the public sector.
U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who represents Catoosa County, spoke publicly against the act when it was first presented and called for a vote to adjourn the House of Representatives in an attempt to delay its final passage, condemning it as "reckless, irresponsible and the wrong thing to do."
"We still have $1 trillion set aside for COVID relief and spending. There is no need to enslave the American people, our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren and generations going forward in more debt," Greene said at the time. "We are at $28 trillion in debt. This Congress is ramming through unbelievable things at a rapid pace. This must be stopped."
Her motion was defeated, and the act passed.
Through its proceeds, Catoosa County will receive a total of $13.1 million to fund pandemic-relief initiatives, such as the one put into place this week.
County Clerk Melissa Hannah said she thinks the incentive program will be a positive thing for the community and she is glad there was money available to put toward it.
"I think it's important to encourage people to get the vaccine so that we can hopefully see the other side of this and protect our families and children in the community," Hannah said. "I'm tired of every day hearing about someone else who has lost a family member or has one who is very sick. We've got to make some changes."
Vaccines are free statewide for everyone, and identification is not required when getting vaccinated.
For more information on how to get vaccinated in North Georgia, visit nghd.org or nwgapublichealth.org. Contacts for other COVID-19 vaccine providers in the area are available at vaccines.gov.
Contact Kelcey Caulder at email@example.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.
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