Sumner County Covid-19 vaccination file photo

Sumner County officials estimate up to 673 full-time county government employees could take a $500 incentive to get full-vaccinated or get a Covid-19 booster shot if offered.

Sumner County government employees could soon have a financial incentive to get their Covid-19 vaccination.

The Sumner County Budget Committee passed on first reading last week a proposal that, if approved by the full county commission, would pay full-time county employees $500 to get fully vaccinated or to get a booster shot when it becomes available.

The vaccination campaign is expected to cost up to $399,258 and would be paid for using a portion of the approximately $37 million in American Rescue Plan funding the county has received, according to a budget adjustment request presented to the budget committee last week.

Of that money, $336,500 would be used for the financial incentives while the remaining $62,758 would go towards Social Security, Medicare and retirement expenses.

“I think we’re all in agreement that we’re not wanting to mandate or force people (to get vaccinated),” Sumner County Commissioner and Budget Committee Chairman Chris Taylor said during a meeting on Sept. 13. “This is simply an incentive hoping to keep our insurance rates down.

“Having talked with one or two people that know insurance… it’s not a terrible idea to set ourselves up so that we have one or two things in our arsenal when they try and raise our rates because it’s going to happen.”

Since an employee’s vaccination status is a medical matter, the county does not know how many of its employees have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, according to Sumner County Law Director Leah May Dennen.

However, Lawing said up to 673 full-time employees are estimated to take the financial incentive if offered. Employees who have previously been vaccinated would not be eligible for the compensation.

“If you read the federal guidelines, it says that vaccination campaigns can be done, but they have to be able to… increase the likelihood of an individual taking the vaccine or the time they would take it,” Sumner County Finance Director David Lawing told the committee last week. “So, we can’t pay employees that have already taken the Covid vaccine, but you can pay them going forward (if they get a booster shot).”

The county’s budget committee is scheduled to discuss and hold a final vote on the incentive program during its next meeting in October. If approved, the item would then go to the full commission for a final decision later that same month.

A new state law that took effect earlier this year prevents any government entity, chief executive of a local government or law enforcement agency from requiring any Tennessee resident to receive a Covid-19 vaccination against their will.

While President Joe Biden recently announced a new mandate requiring all private employers with at least 100 employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19 or produce weekly negative test results, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III said earlier this month that he feels the proposal is too broad and likely violates federal law.

“I agree that everyone eligible for Covid-19 vaccination should, in consultation with his or her doctor, get vaccinated,” Slatery wrote in a letter to the president dated Sept. 16. “Over half of the Volunteer State’s citizens have already received at least one Covid-19 vaccination shot. Ultimately, however, public health decisions are best left in the hands of states, communities, businesses and free citizens.”

As for the proposed financial incentive for Sumner County government employees, District 2 Commissioner Billy Geminden told members of the budget committee last week that he got vaccinated for the safety of him and his family, not because of money.

“I think everybody should want to take the vaccine to help society to get through this and get it over with, but I don’t agree with paying them to take it,” said Geminden, who voted against the proposed $500 vaccination incentive. “I don’t understand why people don’t want to take it.”

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, 39.46 percent of all Sumner County residents had been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 as of Monday. The total number of vaccines given countywide was 162,461.