Courtesy of Dubuque County, Iowa

Essential local government employees such as EMS, police, and public works operators have been eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines for months now, but many have declined the opportunity despite their heightened risk of exposure. As of mid-February, only half of Decatur, Georgia, first responders have opted to receive a vaccination.

Similar percentages are reflected or even higher in municipalities across the nation. As vaccines increasingly become available and the opportunity to get vaccinated expands to more employees, local government managers are looking for strategies to bridge the gap to get to 100% vaccinated in their organization.

Messaging Matters

With employees who are on the fence on whether they will receive a vaccine, there may be room to change their attitudes with messaging. Employees are less likely to believe claims regarding vaccine effectiveness and safety from sources outside the medical profession, so instead focus your messaging on the community value of getting vaccinated. The Rockefeller Foundation released a Message Handbook for employers detailing how to effectively promote testing and tracing within your own organization. They found the most motivating COVID-19 messaging give the audience an opportunity to:

  • Do your part: Create a sense of responsibility (not shame) and agency in the reader by reinforcing the norm of testing, tracing, and vaccination.

“Think of your closest friends and familythey’d take action to keep you as safe as possible. Take your next step by signing up for the waiting list/scheduling your appointment to get vaccinated.”

  • Do it for “them”: Public servants understand what it means to be selfless, especially during times of crisis. Tie messaging back to the ones they care for and a sense of duty, prompting them to think of vulnerable family members, coworkers, and community members.

“Protect your community by being the hero and role model you are everydayget vaccinated to show them how much you care.”

  • Act before it’s too late: Create a sense of urgency by describing what is to be gained and lost.

"You could help prevent hundreds from getting sick by getting your vaccination now while others are still unable"

Leading by Example

A study conducted by Civis Analytics found that messages including a commitment from organization leadership to get the vaccine when eligible had the most consistently positive impact across employee audiences’ likelihood of getting vaccinated.

If you have had the vaccine, consider sharing this information with your employees. If you have been unable to receive a vaccine, express your intention to and the active steps you have taken like signing up for a waiting list.

Ask department heads, elected officials, union leadership, and staff to volunteer to share photographs of themselves receiving vaccines to help encourage and normalize vaccinations within your workforce.

Vaccine Incentives

ICMA previously addressed the legality of local governments requiring employees to receive vaccinations. The article provides key insight and resources for managers considering taking this route, but many local government managers are finding alternative ways to incentivize vaccinations among their employees.

  • In Decatur, Georgia, only half of their first responders have opted to receive a vaccination, so they are attempting to increase the number by offering "extra vacation time, health insurance credits, and raffled gift cards." Their council approved these incentives, but they will expire as soon as vaccine eligibility is expanded to all full-time city employees.
  • Phoenix’s city manager created a “safety program” that offers a $75 gift card to employees who have received the vaccination. The program did not require council approval as the manager has authority to create safety program incentives under a $100 per-employee threshold. The funding is being pulled from vacancies left by a city-wide hiring freeze instituted last year, an action taken by 52% of local government respondents in a recent ICMA survey. Neighboring towns such as Glendale, Peoria, and Tempe are offering health insurance incentives like discounts or wellness points.
  • Dubuque, Iowa, attempted to create a program where employees who received a vaccination had the option to receive a gift card or donate $100 to a local business or nonprofit. While this program was designed to help incentivize vaccination and provide support to the community, the initiative was quickly rolled back by the city manager due to an outpouring of citizen resistance to the program’s potential $75,000 cost. The city is now focusing on education and messaging over incentives.

As seen from the examples above, while incentives can be used to help increase employee vaccines, there are concerns to consider before adopting a program in your own community. Some may include:

  • For employees who are unable to receive a vaccine due to an exemption, consider offering them an alternative way to access these incentives.
  • Run these programs through your HR department or health insurance carrier to keep any HIPAA protected information confidential.
  • Be clear in messaging, especially to the public, on where funds are being drawn to pay for incentive programs and why they are being used.
  • Focus first on implementing incentives that remove barriers to getting the vaccine rather than monetary incentives, such as waiving the need to take leave during a vaccination appointment.

For additional resources, visit ICMA’s Coronavirus Resource page.


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