The restaurant industry may also be moving toward incentives. On Tuesday, Darden Restaurants, which employs more than 175,000 workers across Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and many more brands, said it would offer up to four hours of paid time off to get the vaccine.
However, few other companies have followed suit, potentially in part because of legal uncertainties involved with health screening questionnaires leading up to vaccination.
The Washington Post reached out to more than 85 major employers across hospitality, retail, manufacturing and financial services to ask about incentive plans. About half responded; only two said they had current plans to compensate workers for getting their shots. The rest were still puzzling through their plans for vaccines and their workforces.
Yogurt-maker Chobani is one of the few food processors to announce a vaccine incentive. The company is offering its 2,200 workers up to six hours of paid time off to get inoculated (three hours for each dose received). President and chief operating officer Peter McGuinness said the company hoped to inspire others to follow.
“The more people are vaccinated, the faster this pandemic goes away,” McGuinness said. “Government can’t do it alone, NGOs can’t do it alone and businesses can’t do it alone, but if we all collaborate together … we can make a real difference on this. I hope more of the private sector really steps up.”
Grocery workers have remained vulnerable on the front lines as hazard pay expires, customers flout safety guidelines and the virus rages on. As of Friday, at least 134 grocery workers had died of covid-19 since the pandemic started, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. More than 28,700 workers had been exposed to a positive case.
“America’s food and retail workers are essential, and they all deserve free vaccinations for the risks they have faced,” UFCW International president Marc Perrone said in a statement emailed to The Post. “But make no mistake, vaccinations are not enough - we must make sure that these workers have affordable healthcare, hazard pay, and that employers do much more to protect their health and safety.”
Employers characterized the incentives as a way to limit obstacles to getting vaccinated, such as costs of transit, child care and missed time on the job. The average grocery stock clerk makes about $11.31 an hour in base pay, according to PayScale.com.
“Nine times out of 10, the biggest factor is, ‘Oh, I can’t afford to take off of work’ or ‘Oh, I have no one to watch my child’ or ‘Oh, I can’t get there,’” said Lauren Rzeplinski, a 28-year-old store supervisor at Lidl in Lake Grove, N.Y. “The [incentive] will really help people where these are their only issues with getting the vaccine.”
Unlike workers at large manufacturing plants or other centralized operations, retail workers are more dispersed, making access to clinics more challenging.
“It’s practical to lower the barriers to front-line workers who are leaving their places of employment and getting vaccinated,” said Molly Kinder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies front-line workers. “They need these workarounds.”
Kristen Harknett, a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Francisco who studies hourly workers, said the incentives — especially paid time away from work — will be a “game changer” for hourly grocery workers.
“These are workers who are just barely getting by,” Harknett said. “If they have to take time off from work to go do this, it’s just time they can’t afford.”
In the fall, Harknett and other researchers at the Shift Project surveyed thousands of employees in food and retail about their working conditions in the pandemic. Twenty percent of respondents in grocery reported feeling unsafe at work, citing poor social distancing and no means to enforce mask policies. Thirty-seven percent said they didn’t have paid sick leave.
Lidl, which is offering $200 in additional pay and schedule flexibility to employees who get the vaccine, said that 8 out of 10 workers in an internal survey said they’d get the vaccine as soon as it was available. If all its 6,000 U.S. employees got the vaccine, the cost would total about $2 million, said Will Harwood, Lidl’s director of communications.
Employment lawyers think legal questions may be keeping other companies on the sidelines. Potential screening questions when someone gets vaccinated about allergies or being immunocompromised could implicate the Americans With Disabilities Act, lawyers said. Those questions are allowed if they are considered “job related and consistent with business necessity” or if they’re part of a “voluntary wellness program,” legal experts say.
Some lawyers believe companies will be able to successfully argue that the required screening questions for the coronavirus vaccine meet the standard of being needed for the business. “This is completely uncharted territory,” said Sharon Perley Masling, a partner at Morgan Lewis and former senior counsel to an EEOC commissioner. “When Congress was drafting these provisions, they were not thinking about screening questionnaires for a vaccine that could help end a public health emergency.”
But others say the screening questions could complicate things if they’re seen as being part of a “voluntary wellness program,” which may limit the incentives companies can offer. If the employer contracts with an outside firm to vaccinate employees or has its own staff inoculate workers, new proposed rules from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which says incentives can only be “de minimus” in size, might apply. The proposed rules give examples like a water bottle or gift card of “modest value.”
“Who’s going to go get vaccinated over a water bottle?” said Karla Grossenbacher, a lawyer with Seyfarth Shaw, noting some employers may decide it’s just not worth it.
Lawyers say employers are eager to get clarity from the EEOC on the proposed rules. “If the EEOC would say that, I think we’d have a lot of companies nationwide that would start offering incentives,” said Jeff Smith, a partner at the firm Fisher Phillips.
Some employers are devising other ways to encourage vaccinations. Matrix Medical Network, which provides “mobile health clinics” — RV-style vehicles outfitted with medical supplies and staff — will bring the vaccine directly to employees, rather than paying them to take hours off. Tyson Foods is partnering with Matrix to offer the mobile health clinics and vaccine to workers starting early this year. “A lot of the organizations we’re working with are not making people punch out to get the vaccine,” said Daniel Castillo, chief medical officer at Matrix.
Walmart, meanwhile, which recently boosted the number of states where it will provide inoculations, does not plan to offer employee incentives at this time but will make them “free and accessible” to its 1.5 million U.S. workers, spokesman Randy Hargrove said in an email. It is, however, adding three days of paid leave for employees who experience vaccine side effects.
Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, speaking in a Business Roundtable media call with reporters Jan. 19, said that on a recent store visit in Alabama, the “number one question” employees had was about whether Walmart planned to mandate the vaccine. “Our role is to encourage it and to communicate facts, and to set an example and hopefully have a very high take rate, because it’s important, obviously, that that happen,” he said. “I don’t think very many companies will take the step of mandating.”
So far, legal and human resources experts agree they aren’t seeing many mandates. One thing holding some back is the vaccine’s emergency use authorization, rather than full Food and Drug Administration approval. That could prompt questions about why companies won’t cover experimental medicines in health-care plans.
“Employers have been adamant in their employee handbooks that ‘we will not cover investigational drugs,’” said Neal Mills, chief medical officer of Aon, the human resources consulting firm. “Here comes something that doesn’t even have an FDA approval and now they’re going to make it mandatory?”
Yet some companies are starting to discuss mandates. In comments to employees, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told employees he thinks the “right thing to do is for United Airlines, and for other companies, to require the vaccines and to make them mandatory.” But he suggested United would likely need other companies, “particularly in the healthcare industry,” to also require the vaccine in order for the airline to do so.
Knead Hospitality & Design, a D.C. restaurant group, is offering a full day of paid time off for both vaccine doses received to salaried workers or two hours of wages per dose for hourly employees. The company is in the process of rebuilding its workforce as it grapples with the fallout from restaurant closures and dining restrictions. Knead has almost 400 employees now and hopes to have roughly 800 by June, according to Jason Berry, one of its founders. Berry said the incentives were a “good business decision” because having employees vaccinated will be a crucial part of restoring a degree of normalcy to restaurants.
“The cost is probably a lot greater to have sick staff than it is to give incentive to push them in the right direction,” Berry said.