Sheffield dais

Commissioner Monique Sheffield said her vote for Cobb County’s extra paid leave program for vaccinated employees, designed to encourage vaccination, was a matter of upholding the BOC’s duty to protect the county’s health and safety.

MARIETTA — The Cobb Board of Commissioners moved forward Tuesday to grant vaccinated employees up to 80 extra hours of paid leave, should they need it for COVID-19-related reasons.

The vote passed 4-1, with west Cobb’s Keli Gambrill in opposition.

Gambrill, who decried the policy as a divisive and politicized move, was alone in her condemnation.

“We are not attempting to force vaccination on anyone,” Commissioner Monique Sheffield said. “What we are attempting to do, as so many of you have shared that you have elected us to do, is to ensure the public’s health and safety.”

Sheffield continued, “But when we make efforts to do that, what I hear is that, ‘You’re taking away my freedom.’ We’re not doing that … 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.”

Under the new policy, vaccinated employees who have been directly exposed or infected will receive their full pay rate during their leave for up to 80 hours. They’ll receive two-thirds of their pay rate if caring for a child or other individual who is exposed or infected.

Commissioner JoAnn Birrell stressed the policy only applies to county employees — not the general public — and includes case-by-case exemptions for employees who object to vaccination on medical or religious grounds. She said she continues to believe the vaccine is a personal choice, and fully opposes a mandate, but believes the policy will serve to encourage workers to receive the shot.

The county believes (using a “very rough estimate,” spokesperson Ross Cavitt said) just under half of its employees are currently vaccinated. Per County Manager Jackie McMorris and Support Services Director Sharon Stanley, infections among workers have amplified existing workforce shortages on county work crews.

Stanley said in her department’s most recent report, 34 employees tested positive in one week, 24 of whom were unable to work remotely. Another 17 were in contact with the infected employees and either had to work from home or miss work entirely.

Because many employees have taken sick days without explanation, Cavitt added, a precise number is hard to deduce.

County Chairwoman Lisa Cupid said at a work session Monday that the staffing issues were “costing this organization money.” Gambrill contested that claim, arguing prior to the vote that pay increases, parental leave policies, and labor market factors were driving up overtime costs, not the “red herring” of the pandemic.

“Equitable employers outpace their competitors by respecting the unique needs, perspectives, and potential of all their team members,” she said, arguing the policy was in contradiction with Cobb’s stated commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“It begs the question, why would an employee want to continue working for Cobb County? It is no wonder our turnover rate is so high, and we are unable to attract new employees, when we fail to appreciate their service in exchange for political posturing,” Gambrill added.

Cupid responded that she saw nothing political in the measure, which was proposed by Human Resources Director Tony Hagler.

“As I shared yesterday, this is a step. I think we did not come with the hammer and propose a mandate. We are giving people a choice, and I think it’s going to be very clear after today’s meeting where the policy interest of this board is,” Cupid said.

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