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Pandemic leads to time off for one third of city workers

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of August 19, 2021)

Nearly one third of the City of Vero Beach’s employees have taken time off during the last year and a half either because they were diagnosed with the COVID-19 infection or had to quarantine after exposure to someone who tested positive.

It’s tough to quantify the toll the pandemic has taken on private businesses because that information isn’t released to the public. The impact is most noticeable when a restaurant closes for a deep cleaning, or a “closed” sign temporarily appears on the door of a salon or small store.

But the fact that the city’s records of employees out due to COVID are public gives a glimpse into how the pandemic is playing out in the larger community.

Ninety-three people, or roughly 30 percent of the city’s 318 employees, have used the pandemic benefit of up to 10 paid days of leave for employees sick with COVID-19 or quarantined after exposure, with 20 of those employees exhausting the entire 10 paid days off.

The majority of the employees who used the COVID-19 time off took between three and seven of the available 10 days to recover or quarantine. The affected employees span most city departments from office workers to lifeguards, including several police officers. Sixty-eight men and 23 women appeared on the list, reflecting the heavily male makeup of the city’s public works, utility, solid waste and law enforcement staff.

At this Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the council was set to consider a request from Vero’s human resources department and from City Manager Monte Falls to continue the policy of offering the 10 paid days of leave as had been provided for in the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act.

Starting in April 2020, the city offered this benefit so employees would not need to burn their sick and vacation days if they got infected. The cost of this time was reimbursable under the federal CARES Act funds through Dec. 31, 2020, but the city continued the benefit into 2021, absorbing the cost into the city budget. Falls pointed out that the city is getting some tax credit for the city’s portion of the payroll taxes paid on the leave time.

From April through the end of 2020, the paid covid time off cost $93,652, which was reimbursed to the city. Time off during the 2021 extension of the policy has cost $29,582 so far, so the total cost of all the time off is approaching $125,000.

Falls said the policy helps keep everyone safe, including the residents who must interact with city employees, and it doesn’t cost extra in the current budget because the city budgets for the employee to be paid for 52 weeks of the year, whether that pay is for worked time, sick or vacation time.

“The city continues to enjoy a great deal of employee buy in and support for all of the covid policies and granting this leave would allow us to continue to have the support of all employees,” he told council in his request.

“We want to encourage employees to continue to notify us when they have been exposed to covid as well as to stay home if they are ill.”

Indian River County does not have numbers available for COVID paid leave taken by its 619 employees after Dec. 31, so neither the January post-holiday surge or the current Delta variant surge are captured, but between April and December 2020, 125 employees took time off because they had either tested positive for COVID-19 or had to quarantine due to exposure and could not work remotely. That’s 20 percent of people on the county payroll.