PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — R.I. Deputy House Speaker Charlene Lima on Monday sharply criticized the McKee administration’s plan to provide state employees with $3,000 bonuses for getting vaccinated against COVID-19, calling it a misuse of taxpayer dollars.
The high-ranking Cranston Democrat announced in a news release she was pre-filing legislation for the next General Assembly session that would prohibit state and municipal governments from negotiating contracts awarding COVID-19 vaccine bonuses to public employees. She called the practice unfair to others who have already received the vaccines without any financial incentive.
“It is also unfair to the taxpayers who made the decision to get the vaccine because they felt it was the right thing to do for themselves and for the health and safety of the public,” Lima said in a statement.
As Target 12 first reported, the McKee administration reached a tentative agreement with the state’s largest union group earlier this month on a new contract that would give two $1,500 bonuses to workers who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. The contract vote was scheduled for Dec. 2.
The state’s Republican Party quickly estimated the price tag to taxpayers could run to tens of millions of dollars. And while it wasn’t immediately clear how the bonuses would be funded, Lima said paying for the cost with federal COVID-19 relief money would not make it OK.
“Once we allow bonuses for getting vaccines today, when there are no federal monies available it will set a precedent in future contract negotiations and Rhode Island taxpayers will foot the bill,” Lima said. “There are countless other areas for using these federal relief dollars that would be justifiable to the public.”
The tentative union agreement caught legislative leaders off guard earlier this month, as both House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said they were unaware of the deal.
Gov. Dan McKee was out of state on vacation when the news broke and has not yet commented on it publicly. But Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos has said incentives are often more effective than mandates, as the state has battled in recent months with unvaccinated state employees over not getting inoculated while working in health-related jobs.
McKee’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday regarding Lima’s planned legislation. An administration spokesperson previously declined direct comment on the bonuses, citing the fact that the contract is still tentative.
Asked whether lawmakers had been given information on the funding and potential cost of the vaccine bonuses, spokespersons for Shekarchi and Ruggerio said, “The General Assembly has no details on any element of the governor’s negotiations with the unions.”
Lima said she is generally supportive of government employees receiving bonuses, especially if it’s for “their unselfish work during the COVID pandemic.” But she was adamant that getting vaccinated should not be tied to any bonuses that end up getting negotiated in union contracts.
“These bonuses should be based on their public work performance and sacrifices during the pandemic not on whether they get the COVID vaccine,” she said.
A second lawmaker — state Rep. Sherry Roberts, R-West Greenwich — weighed in against the bonuses on Tuesday. Roberts said she was opposed because the policy would penalize state workers who have declined to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
“While I am not anti-vaccine, I believe that each individual should be able to make their own informed medical decisions,” Roberts said in a statement. “After all, what is next? Are we going to incentivize diabetics not to eat sweets or smokers to quit smoking? This incentive gives an inappropriate appearance of coercion and that we are treading on a slippery slope.”