The City of Dubuque is poised to offer an incentive to urge its 750 employees to take the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available to them.
With a potential cost of up to $75,000 in taxpayer money, that’s an idea that deserved more discussion.
Instead, City Manager Mike Van Milligen used his authority to move forward with the plan without City Council approval.
The plan calls for incenting workers to get the vaccine by offering them a choice of a $100 gift certificate from a local restaurant, a $100 gift certificate from a local not-for-profit organization or a $100 donation made in the employee’s name to a not-for-profit.
Now, if the city is going to spend up to $75,000 on this approach, we’re glad to hear that at least local restaurants and nonprofits will be the beneficiaries. That makes it a more palatable use of public money.
But it’s still a big chunk of money from a government entity whose officials are lamenting the dire financial straits the pandemic has put them in.
Budget Director Jenny Larson said recently that while the full cost of the pandemic is still unknown, the city has incurred more than $1.3 million in COVID-19-related expenditures and $4.8 million in projected revenue losses. The city has had to shell out for personal protective equipment, building disinfection and remote work telecommunications.
Meanwhile, lost revenue from parking fees, hotel and motel tax and gaming taxes likely will continue this year. While state and federal aid has helped offset expenses, the city is still seeking more aid and making contingency budget-cutting plans.
It seems like an odd time to tack on another $75,000 expense — particularly when it’s unclear how much it will move the needle with employees.
That brings us to another question about the incentive: How well will it really work?
The latest polling shows about 20% of people say they won’t get the vaccine (13%) or won’t get it unless they have to (7%). The first group is the people we’re trying to persuade, as city officials say they will not mandate that employees get vaccinated.
Polling shows that more than half of people are ready and willing to get the vaccine with or without the incentive — many of them eager to do so. In fact, local medical facilities have been urging residents to stop calling to check on when they can get their first doses.
Going back to that 13% for the city, will a $100 gift card change their minds? If not, was the money well spent? Let’s say half of them agree to get it. Was $75,000 to change 50 or so minds worth it?
To be clear — everyone should get the vaccine. Full stop.
It’s understandable that leaders are trying to do whatever they can to further that message. The conundrum of people opposed to taking the vaccine, the very thing that will allow us a pathway out of this pandemic, is challenging for businesses, long-term-care facilities and other organizations. It’s likely some will weigh the costs and benefits in determining whether an incentive is a worthwhile idea.
When the organization in question is a government entity using taxpayer dollars, however, the question of incentives deserves an airing of public discussion.