Federal agency says employers can offer incentives to get COVID-19 vaccine

Federal agency says employers can offer incentives to get COVID-19 vaccine
© Greg Nash

The U.S. federal agency responsible for overseeing the protection of civil rights and prevention of discrimination in the workplace said in updated guidance Friday that employers may legally offer incentives for workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said in a fact sheet posted to its website that under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) and other EEOC laws, employers may offer “an incentive to employees to voluntarily provide documentation or other confirmation of a vaccination received in the community.” 

Employers are also allowed to offer incentives to employees who get vaccinated through their employer or an affiliated agent, so long as the incentive, which can include “both rewards and penalties,” is “not so substantial as to be coercive,” according to the EEOC. 

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The announcement comes as business groups have demanded specific guidance on what incentives employers can provide employees who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to safely return to work. 

Business groups and the Biden administration earlier this year launched an initiative to persuade companies to provide financial incentives for employees as a shrinking number of unvaccinated people have indicated eagerness to do so as soon as possible. 

While several companies have provided one-time cash incentives for their staff, workers’ unions have indicated they would prefer paid time off to quell fears among workers that they could lose wages by missing work to get the vaccine or to recover from possible side effects in the days following the shot. 

The Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million workers in the U.S., said in March, “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.” 

Friday’s updated guidance from the EEOC also states that employers may offer incentives to employees who provide documentation of a family member receiving a vaccination from “from a third party not acting on the employer’s behalf, such as a pharmacy or health department.” 

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However, the EEOC states that “an employer may not offer any incentives to an employee in exchange for a family member’s receipt of a vaccination from an employer or its agent.” 

“Providing such an incentive to an employee because a family member was vaccinated by the employer or its agent would require the vaccinator to ask the family member the pre-vaccination medical screening questions, which include medical questions about the family member,” the guidance states. “Asking these medical questions would lead to the employer’s receipt of genetic information in the form of family medical history of the employee.” 

This week, several states announced incentives to encourage more residents to get vaccinated. California health officials offered a combined $116 million worth of prizes, including 10 chances to win a $1.5 million cash lottery.