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T-shirts, bonuses, and paid time off: How companies are incentivizing workers to get a COVID vaccine as new guidance looms

April 30, 2021, 8:02 PM UTC

There have been more than 240 million COVID vaccine doses administered in the U.S. to date, with more than 30% of the population now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Daily new cases have begun to decline in the past two weeks following a bit of a plateau. But that doesn’t mean America will return to normalcy in the workplace with the flick of a wrist, especially as vaccine supply begins to overtake the demand for shots. And one of the most significant questions for employers who want to get people back into the office is how, and how appropriate it is legally, to incentivize workers to get vaccinated.

To that end, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is expected to issue guidance on COVID vaccine incentives within the next few weeks. Once that’s out, the state of play will come into much clearer focus.

In the meantime, some employers have been offering an array of incentives for vaccinations, from free water bottles and T-shirts to cash bonuses and additional paid time off, says Amber Clayton, director of the Knowledge Center at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a massive association of HR professionals.

In this role, Clayton helps various companies’ HR departments navigate such issues (not in an official legal capacity, but more as guidance for members of the association).

SHRM’s own research into its membership organizations has highlighted a number of trends. For instance, 28% of U.S. workers in a recent SHRM survey said they’d be willing to lose their jobs over the COVID vaccine, and 66% of workers who currently say they want to continue working from home permanently would still not want to go back to the office even if more than half of Americans are vaccinated.

In the face of that reality, according to Clayton, some companies have been getting creative with vaccine incentive programs. To be clear: The vast majority still aren’t offering such incentives, although that may change once the new EEOC guidance is released. The bulk of these incentivizing firms tend to be mid- to large-size and on the front lines, in health care, public administration, and the military.

“According to our research from earlier this year, we found that 88% of the employers were not offering or planning to offer any incentives to encourage employees to get the vaccine,” says Clayton. “But for those who were, 6% of them are offering additional paid time off; 3% were offering gifts like gift cards and food vouchers; 2% were offering cash bonuses; and 1% were offering stipends.”

Those are probably more effective motivators than free T-shirts and water bottles, as are measures such as extra paid time off to cope with any COVID vaccine side effects and reimbursement for transportation to a vaccination site, which a number of companies have also implemented.

One of the obvious questions around vaccine incentive programs is how such efforts could run afoul of medical privacy laws. Clayton explains that it’s a nuanced issue.

For instance, simply asking for a proof of vaccination record may not violate the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). But if a company is collecting personal medical information from workers with the purpose of incentivizing vaccines, including firms that offer shots on-site, there could be certain confidentiality and privacy provisions under the ADA and HIPAA that could apply.

But don’t be surprised if an increasing number of companies start deploying some of these tactics, given their responsibility to ensure safe conditions once the federal government decides what’s on the up-and-up. That responsibility is part of federal law, too, under the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“I think more employers—once there’s specific guidance out there—they may not have even been considering incentives previously, but with new guidance, they may decide to go ahead and do that. Because employers have an obligation to create a safe and healthy workplace for their employees,” says Clayton.

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