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August 10, 2021

Pennsylvania enacts a 'vaccine or test' requirement for some state workers

Gov. Wolf will offer all vaccinated state employees a paid day off, may still consider financial incentives for COVID-19 immunization

Government COVID-19
Wolf COVID Incentives Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced a new incentive program for state employees who are fully vaccinated, offering them a day off as part of a new program to increase vaccination rates.

All Pennsylvania state employees in health care and high-risk settings soon will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they are willing to undergo regular testing.

In the future, Pennsylvania also may provide residents with financial incentives to get vaccinated, Gov. Tom Wolf said during a press briefing Tuesday. 

The "vaccine or test" requirement for state employees in health care and high-risk congregate settings will take effect Sept. 7. Those who do not get vaccinated will be required to complete weekly COVID-19 testing. All new external hires after Sept. 7 must be vaccinated before starting employment.

Those who choose the testing option will generally undergo weekly testing through a system established by their employer, at no cost to the employee, officials said.

This initiative will affect approximately 25,000 employees working at state hospitals, veterans homes, community health centers, state correction institutions and state homes for people with intellectual disabilities. 

A "day off" initiative will go into effect Oct. 1, making all vaccinated state employees under the government's jurisdiction eligible for an additional 7.5 or 8 hours paid time off. The Office of Administration will work with employees and agencies to develop a mechanism for employees to confirm proof of vaccination.

Pennsylvania has approximately 72,000 state employees who may be eligible to get an extra paid day off if they are vaccinated. Wolf explained that he came up with the idea based on the success of a "time off" incentive program he used before he became governor, when he worked for the United Way.

"As a leading employer in Pennsylvania, the commonwealth must stand up and provide an example for other businesses to follow," Wolf said. "It is vitally important that employees have the confidence that they can safely work and serve their fellow Pennsylvanians. Even more importantly, we hope this incentive will help Pennsylvanians stay healthy and safe from dangerous variants of COVID-19."

In Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney signaled this week that he is considering a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city employees. New York City announced last month that it will require its 300,000 employees to get vaccinated by Sept. 13 or submit to regular tests. The city previously passed a vaccine mandate for all health care workers at city-run hospitals and clinics.

"Everybody should be vaccinated," Kenney said. "I don't want to twist anybody's arm to do it but we'll try to figure out a way to get people to cooperate."

"We're having conversations about this and other restrictions, but nothing is definitive at this time," a city official added, pointing to plans to discuss the topic Wednesday at COVID-19 press briefing. 

Philadelphia City Council announced Tuesday that all of its employees will be required to get vaccinated as a return to in-person work approaches next month. 

COVID-19 cases have been rising across Pennsylvania in recent weeks, following a nationwide pattern driven by the highly infectious delta variant and a large segment of the population that remains unvaccinated. Breakthrough infections among those who are vaccinated have partly contributed to rising cases, but public health officials say the vast majority of new spread has been among those who aren't vaccinated.

Pennsylvania's COVID-19 test positivity rate climbed above 5% this month, surpassing the threshold set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to strongly recommend indoor masking in public places.

As of Tuesday, 66.7% of Pennsylvania's total population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 53.1% are fully vaccinated. Among adults, 79.4% have had at least one vaccine dose and 63.8% are fully vaccinated. More than 99% of residents over age 65 are fully vaccinated, which is the best rate among that group in the United States, Wolf said.

"I think where we're probably lagging is in the younger generation," Wolf said. "But the vaccines really work, and you can see this in the hospitalization numbers."

Pennsylvania has fared comparatively well as cases have surged across the country. Over the last 14 days, the state has averaged 12 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, compared to 38 per 100,000 nationwide. Pennsylvania has had about 7 hospitalizations per 100,000 people over the last 14 days. The nationwide average is 19 per 100,000. 

"As well as we're doing, it's not good enough," Wolf said. "With the vaccine, we actually have the ability to do even better — and this is not where we want to be, again, as good as it is. Every one of us lives in communities where we have vulnerable populations — people who are at greater risk from more dangerous and more contagious variants of COVID-19, like the delta variant. Right now, that risk is increasing as these variants spread across the nation. We're not in the hotspot, but we have no reason to be complacent."

Wolf was asked Tuesday about $370 million in American Rescue Plan funds in the state budget that were set aside for the COVID-19 response and whether he would consider an a financial incentive program for those who remain unvaccinated. President Joe Biden last month urged state and local governments to consider adopting a $100 incentive program for newly vaccinated people.

"The president obviously has suggested that we take $100 of that and make that an inducement for people to get the vaccines," Wolf said. "That might take $80 million right there. We still are working on how to get that out. I keep bragging about how good Pennsylvania has been without the incentives. Unlike some of the states around us, we haven't really done that, but I am interested and that's why I'm saying to employees of the commonwealth, get a vaccine and I'll give you a day off."