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Pressure builds for companies to incentivize vaccines for workers

Pressure builds for companies to incentivize vaccines for workers
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Business groups and the Biden administration are launching a new initiative to persuade companies to provide financial incentives for employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The joint effort, announced late last week, encourages employers to make it as easy as possible for workers to get vaccinated, through compensation or paid time off.

Many companies have already pledged to provide one-time cash payments for their staff, but unions are saying they would prefer paid leave for their members.

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“Employees should be able to get vaccinated without fear of lost wages or loss of paid time off or other bargained leave,” said a spokesperson for the Communication Workers of America. “Therefore, CWA encourages employers to allow employees to be vaccinated on paid work time to expand employee access to limited vaccine appointment availability and to demonstrate employer support for vaccinations.”

The union, which represents 700,000 workers, also supports a sick time benefit for vaccine-related side effects.

A growing list of companies have said they will offer employees some kind of financial incentive to get vaccinated.

Retail giant Target Corp. is offering hourly employees four hours of pay and the cost of a Lyft ride to get to a vaccine appointment, while other companies such as McDonald’s, Aldi, Dollar General and Trade Joe’s are also offering four hours of pay.

Others are offering cash payments, with Kroger saying it would give $100 to employees to get vaccinated.

But the growing consensus among unions is that paid time off is preferable.

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“Vaccines must be provided free of charge, and workers should be provided with paid time off if the vaccination process requires them to miss work,” said the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million workers in the U.S.

“I really think that each employer is going to have to know this workforce, know their industry and make the determination as to which incentive, money or time off, is more appropriate for the workforce,” said Jill Lashay, a labor law expert at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC who represents management and employers.

The White House-backed initiative includes some of the biggest business lobbying groups in Washington: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the Business Roundtable. The groups were joined by leaders of the Black, Latino and Asian business communities as part of an effort to call on businesses to reduce barriers to vaccinations.

“While there is no one-size fits all solution, every employer has a role they can play, including helping making it easier for employees to get vaccinated when the vaccine is available,” said Neil Bradley, the Chamber’s chief policy officer.

Some of the incentives range from just two hours of pay, for Amtrak workers who prove that they received the vaccine, to six hours of paid leave for Chobani employees.

NAM said some companies may be waiting for the federal government to give guidance on incentives.

“Manufacturers are still waiting on guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on what types of incentives can be offered to employees to get the vaccine,” a spokesperson for the group said, while adding that many manufacturers are “offering paid time off and helping families of team members get vaccinated.”

Meat packing company JBS USA is offering employees $100 in bonuses to receive the vaccine. At Instacart, workers are offered $25 as a stipend for potential wages lost while getting vaccinated.

“I believe providing paid time off for vaccine appointments is good policy. It allows workers who are eligible for the vaccine to receive it without having to choose between their health and going to work,” said Todd Vachon, faculty coordinator at the Labor Education Action Research Network at Rutgers University.

“These same employers should go further, though, and if they do not already, they should provide paid sick days so that employees who feel ill don’t have to choose between their economic needs and the health of their co-workers and customers,” he added.

Unions are pushing for more than just paid time off, with many saying companies need to take more safety measures to protect workers from the coronavirus, on top of quick vaccine distribution.

“This is especially important because not all workers are eligible for a vaccine at this time. Contact tracing and quarantining with paid sick time are still vital for containing the spread of the virus. As are mask mandates and supporting regular access to testing,” Vachon said.

Some workplaces are mandating that employees take a COVID-19 vaccine, which recently led to a legal challenge. A detention center officer in New Mexico recently filed what’s believed to be the first lawsuit over a workplace requirement to receive the coronavirus vaccine, claiming his rights were violated by making the vaccine a condition of employment unless reasonable accommodation has been approved.

And for those who can’t or choose not to get the vaccine, experts say employers may be faced with complaints about financial incentives for certain employees but not others.

“Offer incentives to employees who might not be able to take the vaccine because of religious objection or some [Americans with Disabilities Act]-covered reason,” Lashay said. “Maybe give additional payments or time off if you take an educational class or safety course.”