S.C. city passes COVID hazard pay for first responders, sets date for vaccine mandate

Columbia's frontline workers will get a $2,500 stipend, and all city workers who get the vaccine will receive a $500 bonus if they are vaccinated by Nov. 1


Chris Trainor
The State (Columbia, S.C.)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Columbia City Council has approved hazard pay for city workers who have toiled through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the city plans to make COVID vaccines mandatory for city employees beginning Nov. 1, but will pay employees a bonus if they get vaccinated before that date.

Columbia firefighters are among those who will receive a $2,500 one-time stipend for their work during the pandemic.
Columbia firefighters are among those who will receive a $2,500 one-time stipend for their work during the pandemic.

The council passed the hazard pay measure during a Tuesday meeting at the Busby Street Community Center. Through the move, frontline workers at the city, such as police officers, firefighters, public works, etc., will get a $2,500 one-time stipend. Other workers will get a $1,250 one-time stipend. Additionally, city workers who get the COVID-19 vaccine will receive a one-time $500 bonus if they are vaccinated by Nov. 1.

Funding for those hazard pay stipends, also referred to as "premium pay" in city paperwork, is coming from the federal American Rescue Plan COVID relief funding that was signed into law in March by President Joe Biden. The total will be about $5.2 million.

Additionally, council also approved a 3% cost of living increase for city workers on Tuesday, and that funding will come from the city's budget, per Mayor Steve Benjamin. That cost of living increase will go into effect in February 2022.

The city also is planning to make vaccinations mandatory for employees after Nov. 1. City manager Teresa Wilson implored city workers to get their vaccinations, and noted the nature of working for the city calls on employees to provide essential services to the populace.

"It's about being able to provide the services from picking up the trash to keeping the water clean to keeping people safe," Wilson said. "Those are the jobs we signed up for when we work for a municipality. We can't do it without the people. What I'm seeing and witnessing on a daily basis, at times, is troublesome."

Wilson told The State about 55% of the city's roughly 2,300 employees are currently fully vaccinated.

Mayor Steve Benjamin called the $500 bonus for employees who get vaccinated before Nov. 1 "the carrot."

"We are taking a methodical and data-driven approach that recognizes the challenge we are all facing together, and we are trying to bring everyone along at a pace that is meaningful to the greater good, but is also meaningful to them individually," Benjamin said.

The city council's hazard pay move came after Richland County Council recently approved a similar maneuver.

County council passed a measure in late July authorizing county administration to make the hazard pay stipends to some county employees. The funding also is coming from the federal American Rescue Plan COVID relief funding.

According to county records, about 1,470 employees will receive the one-time stipend, and the total amount paid will be about $6.9 million.

Some county employees are getting a $5,000 stipend. Those include sheriff's deputies, coroner's office personnel, EMS workers, utility workers and others whose jobs often take them into direct contact with other people in unpredictable scenarios.

Other county workers will get a $2,500 stipend. Those would include employees who worked daily in county offices and had interactions with the public and other employees, but had some level of control over the risk they encountered.

The local government hazard pay measures come at a time when COVID-19 is spreading quickly in South Carolina. The state Department of Health and Environmental Control announced more than 20,000 new cases of the coronavirus over the long Labor Day weekend, along with 192 new deaths.

"The data has been daunting," Benjamin said.

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(c)2021 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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