SEVIERVILLE — The 17,000 employees of Food City will each receive $15 restaurant gift cards, and that includes the nearly 700 associates who work at stores in Sevier County.

The gifts come as grocery store employees in Tennessee, unlike their counterparts in some states, remain at the bottom of the COVID-19 vaccination priority list.

On Friday, Food City representatives announced the gifts as part of the Feb. 22 Supermarket Employee Day. The day of recognition was recently established by the Food Industry Association.

The purchase of local restaurant gift cards follows the approximately $10 million awarded by Food City to its employees as appreciation bonuses.

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly a year ago, our dedicated team of over 17,000 supermarket heroes has gone above and beyond the call of duty to meet the needs of our customers and the communities we serve,” said Food City President and CEO Steve Smith.

He also recognized the 250 pharmacists throughout the chain grocer’s 134 locations. In addition to stores in Tennessee, Food City operates in Georgia, Kentucky and Virginia. It is set to expand to Alabama with an upcoming store in Albertville.

Purchasing restaurant gift cards was done purposefully in support of an industry hit especially hard by the pandemic.

“While our industry has been fortunate to continue to grow our business throughout the pandemic, our friends and neighbors in the restaurant industry have been faced with a number of significant challenges over the past year,” Smith said. “We’re excited to be able to reward our team for their extraordinary efforts and provide some much-needed revenue for some of our local restaurant owners.”

Across the state, some grocery store employees are concerned about the Tennessee Department of Health’s timeline for COVID-19 vaccinations.

There are only three main phases in Tennessee’s vaccine distribution plan, with a total of seven sub-phases: 1a1, 1a2, 1b, 1c, 2a, 2b and 3.

States such as Georgia and Virginia have placed grocery workers in Phase 1b.

In January, Food City Executive Vice President John Jones asked Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to reconsider the placement of grocery store employees in the state’s last phase.

On Tuesday, Tennessee Department of Health representatives released “COVID-19 Vaccination Plan Version 5.0.”

Page 21 of the 52-page draft shows that grocery workers remain in Phase 3, along with inmates of correctional facilities and “those living and working in shelters, college dormitories, overnight camps and other settings where individuals are capable of independent living.”

Information is available at www.tn.gov/health.

Contact Juli at jneil@themountainpress.com or on Twitter at @NeilWatsonJ.