US workers enticed with bonuses, time off to get COVID-19 vaccine

NEW YORK (AFP) – As COVID-19 vaccination drives get into gear across the United States (US), some businesses are offering transportation, paid time off and bonuses of up to USD500 to encourage workers to get the jab.

Labour-intensive industries like slaughterhouses, supermarkets and farms, whose workers are at higher risk of contracting the virus, have taken the lead, with several large grocery chains offering two to four hours paid leave time for employees to get vaccinated.

“Providing accommodations so employees can receive this critical vaccine is one more way we can support them and eliminate the need to choose between earning their wages and protecting their well-being,” CEO of supermarket chain Aldi Jason Hart said in January.

Others have taken advantage of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regulations that allow them to set up their own vaccination centres.

California-based Bolthouse Farms, which sells carrots, smoothies and juices, holds weekly immunisation sessions at its main site and pays USD500 to all full-time employees who accept the shot.

Meat giant JBS is offering USD100 to vaccinated employees and has distributed materials in several languages to emphasise the safety and effectiveness of immunisation. By mid-March, about a third of its 60,000 employees had received a first dose.

Retail chain Target will pay workers up to USD30 in transportation costs related to getting a vaccine.

A man receives a shot of COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Los Angeles. PHOTO: AFP

Kroger, the largest grocery chain in the country, offers USD100 to those who are vaccinated, and also to staff who refuse to take the shot for medical or religious reasons, as long as they take a health education class.

Companies in the gig economy are making similar offers. Grocery delivery platform Instacart is offering USD25 to its shoppers, who are not employees.

Other industries have taken a more forceful approach. United Airlines Chief Executive Scott Kirby in January mentioned possibly making the vaccine required for pilots, crew and other employees.

“We are still not at the point where we can make the vaccine mandatory and are still working through the eligibility issues between each state and vaccine supply,” a company spokesman told AFP.

Professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law Dorit Reiss said companies can mandate that employees get vaccinated, “with caveats.”

“COVID-19 vaccines are authorised under an emergency use authorisation, not approved in the usual way, and there is legal uncertainty,” Reiss said.

At the same time, companies could face lawsuits if an outbreak occurs in their workplace.

Some workers may however turn down getting vaccinated, while unions may want to negotiate with management over the jabs.

Reiss said that it would be appropriate for companies operating in environments particularly vulnerable to outbreaks, like nursing homes or prisons, to mandate the vaccine.

Most other companies are probably better off offering “incentives or a soft mandate,” like requiring people who don’t get vaccinated to wear protective equipment like masks or telecommute.

“Most of the hesitancy we’re seeing now is not anti-vaccine people but people who are nervous about the new vaccine, and they can be reassured over time,” she said.

According to a February survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, only five per cent of American bosses intend to impose the vaccine on all or some of their employees.

Other firms have turned their vaccination efforts not to their own employees but to the public at large, in a bid to speed up consumption and the economic recovery at large.

Krispy Creme is offering a free doughnut until the end of the year with proof of vaccination.