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State ends employee COVID testing, rolls back fees for unvaccinated

Tabitha Mueller
Tabitha Mueller
CoronavirusState Government
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Following a move from daily to weekly reporting of COVID-19 data, state officials are lifting a requirement that unvaccinated employees undergo weekly COVID-19 tests, while also eliminating a planned monthly surcharge for state workers who have not received a COVID vaccine.

A memo sent to state workers Tuesday announcing the end of the employee COVID-19 testing program noted that almost half of the state workforce was testing weekly when the testing requirement began, resulting in about 10,000 tests administered per week. Recent data shows a steady downward trend in cases, and positive results among the state workers still required to undergo weekly testing have dropped to less than 1 percent of that group.

Though the state initially took a hard-line stance on COVID-19 vaccines, threatening to fire unvaccinated employees, statistics reveal that only a handful of employees were ever disciplined and even fewer let go — with no employees in the executive branch affected by the decision.

In addition to the halt in testing, the Public Employees Benefits Program (PEBP) — which provides health and life insurance to about 70,000 people, including state employees and their dependents — voted unanimously on Thursday to roll back a decision to apply surcharges against roughly 5,000 unvaccinated state employees. The board approved the surcharges in December as a stopgap measure to cover an average of $2,700 a week for COVID testing that could no longer be supported by federal CARES Act funding. 

PEBP Executive Officer Laura Rich recommended removing the surcharge based on the following factors: increased vaccination rates, a decline in the number of employees with COVID and fewer cases requiring hospitalization.

PEBP was set to implement the monthly surcharges beginning July 1. The program would have required all state workers and dependents without proof of vaccination or a legitimate religious or health exemption to pay a $55 monthly premium, including $175 for each dependent over 18 covered by the health plan.

Without the surcharges, the governor’s office and finance office will be using other funds to help cover costs incurred by employee-mandated testing (approximately $1.3 million) and any potential COVID spikes in the future, according to reports included in Thursday’s agenda items.

During the meeting, Rich clarified that if there is another COVID variant that causes a spike and puts PEBP on the hook for high-cost claims, the governor’s finance office “would be open to discussing solutions.”

The cost so far

As of the end of December, roughly 5,000 state employees were unvaccinated, but an exact number that included dependents and retirees was unavailable. The costs paid by PEBP for members diagnosed with COVID-19 amounted to a little more than $2.2 million in 2020, almost $11.5 million in 2021 and nearly $2 million through Feb. 10 this year.

A breakdown showing costs incurred for vaccinated and unvaccinated members was unavailable because PEBP does not have immunization information for all members. If a member received their vaccine through a community health center or somewhere that did not ask for insurance information (such as a vaccine clinic), Rich said PEBP would not have any vaccination information on record because the organization would not have paid that claim.  

Though PEBP does not track costs by vaccination status, Rich noted that studies show that costs among unvaccinated are much higher than those who are vaccinated. 

Disciplinary actions for unvaccinated workers

As Nevada has navigated the pandemic, the question of vaccine mandates has spurred countless debates, deadlocked votes and various approaches to discipline surrounding employees who refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

But discipline policies and procedures among state agencies are not monolithic. Most employees of executive branch agencies have different policies than employees of the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) and the judicial and legislative branches.

Data from the Division of Human Resource management — which covers most executive branch agencies — from September 2021 to the present indicate that 19 state employees have received written reprimands for noncompliance with COVID policies, seven employees have received intermediate levels of discipline and no employees have been terminated for noncompliance.

The state board of health in September adopted emergency regulations requiring a COVID vaccine for correctional employees and state-employed health workers, but Republican lawmakers blocked the mandate — and another one affecting college students — from taking effect in December.

The Board of Regents voted to create a vaccine mandate for higher education system employees in late September, sending notices on Dec. 1 to nearly 1,700 employees warning them that they had about a month to comply with the directive.

According to data shared by institutions at the end of December before the firings became permanent, only 2.3 percent of NSHE employees – or just over 500 people – remained unvaccinated.

Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Brenda Erdoes said the Legislature does not have disciplinary procedures for unvaccinated workers but requests that employees working in the legislative building who are not fully boosted and vaccinated test weekly for COVID-19. To date, Erdoes said no employees have been terminated for failure to comply with the request to test.

Nevada’s judiciary system is not unified and each court follows different rules and regulations. 

The state’s Appellate Court, which includes the Nevada Supreme Court and the Nevada Court of Appeals, requires employees to be up to date with vaccinations. Director and State Court Administrator Katherine Stocks said the court is an at-will employer and does not have a progressive discipline policy. 

Five employees who did not get the vaccine were let go earlier this year, Stocks said, adding that though “a few employees were granted exceptions” per a return to office policy, the organization has an almost 100 percent vaccination rate.

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