Cobb County’s vaccinated employees get more paid leave to combat COVID-19

Cobb County Commissioner Keli Gambrill, left, was opposed to a revision to the county's policy for paid administrative leave Tuesday. The Board of Commissioners passed a policy initiative to give vaccinated employees up to 80 hours in leave time for COVID-related issues. Commission Chairwoman Lisa Cupid, right, spoke out in support of the measure. (Screenshot: Cobb County Government)

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Cobb County Commissioner Keli Gambrill, left, was opposed to a revision to the county's policy for paid administrative leave Tuesday. The Board of Commissioners passed a policy initiative to give vaccinated employees up to 80 hours in leave time for COVID-related issues. Commission Chairwoman Lisa Cupid, right, spoke out in support of the measure. (Screenshot: Cobb County Government)

Vaccinated Cobb County workers will soon be eligible for more paid leave than unvaccinated workers in a move the county hopes will protect employees from COVID-19 and cut down on overtime from pandemic-related absences.

The Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to temporarily change the county’s policy on paid administrative leave. Full-time staff members who’ve been fully vaccinated will get an additional 80 hours of paid time off for COVID-19 related issues should they need it.

Cobb County does not have a vaccine mandate. About 50% of its employees have been fully vaccinated, according to county officials, who said the latest measure is meant to incentivize unvaccinated workers to become inoculated against the virus as a way to reduce the spread of the delta variant.

The policy change passed by a vote of 4-1. It takes effect Sunday and will be in place through the end of the year. The county will use $750,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to cover the additional leave costs.

Commissioner Keli Gambrill, who cast the lone dissenting vote, described it as “political posturing.” She bristled at the notion of unvaccinated employees being treated differently than those who’ve taken the shot and accused her fellow board members of “using COVID as a red herring and justification to take away personal choice.”

Reading from a prepared statement, Gambrill denied the claim that unvaccinated employees are driving up overtime costs across the county by spreading the coronavirus to their co-workers.

“A good policy, at a minimum, should treat all employees equally. Yet what is presented here today reflects that this organization and board have ceased to debate and compromise in order to find the best solution,” she said.

But three commissioners, including JoAnn Birrell, the only other Republican on Cobb’s dais besides Gambrill, spoke in support of the revised policy.

“I see this as a benefit, not a penalty,” Birrell said.

Commissioner Monique Sheffield agreed. She said the county is not trying to force anyone to take the vaccine.

“We have a responsibility to those who are opposed to being vaccinated; and we also have a responsibility to those who have been vaccinated,” she said. “What’s presented before us today is to exercise our responsibility to the county employees who have been vaccinated, but they have still been exposed.”

Calling it an “apolitical agenda item,” Chairwoman Lisa Cupid said COVID-19 is causing shortages in staffing that have swelled overtime costs in several county departments. Cobb County’s fire department, for instance, saw a 256% spike in overtime this summer that Fire Chief Bill Johnson attributed to firefighters and paramedics quarantining after contracting or being exposed to COVID-19.

“I want to do what’s right by this organization and the taxpayers. And we are not doing what’s right if we’re going to hemorrhage dollars out because we’re paying overtime from people being out with COVID,” she said.

Cobb employees are allotted 13 days of sick leave and 13 to 25 days of accrued leave each year depending the number of years they’ve worked for the county.

The revised policy will give vaccinated full-time employees an additional 80 hours of leave if they need to quarantine or care for a relative that’s sick or a child whose school shuts down due to the pandemic.

Workers who qualify for the leave will be paid their regular rate if they are in quarantine or exhibiting symptoms. They’ll get two-thirds of of their salary if they are caring for someone with COVID-19.

The COVID case rate in Cobb County on Tuesday was 623 cases per 100,000 residents, according to Cobb and Douglas Public Health. County officials said cases have been surging among employees, particularly after the start of the school year last month.

As of last week, 34 employees had tested positive, according to Cobb County spokesman Ross Cavitt. Of those, 24 were unable to work virtually. On top of that, 17 employees who were exposed to someone with COVID-19 were out of work last week. Fourteen were unable to work from home.

Tony Hagler, Cobb County’s human resources director, proposed the policy shift as a way to mitigate the spread. Cavitt said it was aimed to support employees, particularly vaccinated workers that have done all they can to stay safe.

“It is hoped this might provide some incentive to others to get the vaccine, which in turn we hope will reduce the exposure to COVID and impact on our employee workforce,” Cavitt said.