Retailers are taking extraordinary measures to convince employees to get vaccinated, experts weigh in on whether they'll work

  • Retailers have been tasked with helping to inoculate the public with COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Many retailers are relying on incentives to encourage their employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine
  • Experts wonder if these incentives will work, or if retailers are offering the right incentives.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Retailers across the United States are ramping up to help distribute the COVID-19 to the general public, while also weighing how to best vaccinate their own workforce.

To encourage vaccination, some companies are opting to bestow perks on workers who opt for a vaccine. Meanwhile, industry groups have lobbied for their workforces to be listed as essential employees and therefore bumped up on the vaccination prioritization list.

Despite being recognized as heroes during the pandemic, retail employees continue to risk their own health by working on the frontlines of stores with very little by the way of worker protections. But in many cases, these workers are toward the front of the line to be vaccinated. Now, retailers are testing out different methods to incentivize these workers to actually get the vaccine. But industry experts predict varying levels of success and worry of legal issues. 

The COVID-19 vaccine is still not yet available to the general public, with most states still in the earliest phases of the rollout. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control is recommending that states include frontline essential worker in phase 1B of the vaccination push, after long term care facility residents and health care personnel receive their shots. Other essential workers — such as restaurant employees — are poised to be vaccinated after that, as part of phase 1C.

So far, plenty of retailers have begun offering perks to encourage employees to get inoculated as soon as possible.

Dollar General will offer employees four hours pay in exchange for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Workers who have an adverse reaction to the shot will also get paid time off. Supermarket chains like Aldi and Trader Joe’s, as well as grocery delivery startup Instacart, have offered financial incentives for vaccination. The trend of incentivizing COVID-19 shots isn’t specific to the retail space, with meatpacker JBS USA and Chicago area nursing homes also offering to dole out vaccine bonuses. 

The New York Times reported that the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that employers can require workers to get COVID-19 vaccines. Several cruise companies have announced that all crew members will have to be vaccinated in order to work onboard ships. According to CBS, a survey of LinkedIn users found that 46% of respondents supported employers mandating vaccines.

“If they are able and willing to incentivize workers to get the vaccine, I commend that because we want to get as many people to get vaccinated as possible,” Alvin Tran, a social epidemiologist at the University of New Haven, told Insider.

Tran said he would also be in favor of private employers going a step forward and mandating COVID-19 vaccination, while still allowing for employees with specific objections to opt-out. But industry experts say that most retailers are unlikely to mandate the shot, given the iffy legality of doing so. And they don’t see the federal government encouraging employers to do so, either.

John Ho, an Cozen O’Connor attorney who previously worked as a prosecutor for the US Department of Labor, told Insider that forcing employees to vaccinate could prove to be discrimination against employees with disabilities or sincerely-held religious beliefs. 

Ho said offering financial incentives in exchange for vaccinations is “probably the safer thing for retailers to do.”

“I think mandating vaccines will be the exception, as opposed to the rule,” Ho said. “I think that would be even a stretch for this administration to take such an aggressive position.”

On the worker’s rights side, advocates say that mandating a vaccine — and firing retail workers who don’t comply — could set a bad precedent.

“Ultimately it’s in everybody’s best interest for employers to provide information and encourage and incentivize the vaccine, as opposed to mandating the vaccine,” Juley Fulcher, workplace health and safety advocate for consumer rights group Public Citizen. “To force workers to get a vaccine who don’t want it for whatever reason is not good policy and not something we would want to support.”

Experts are mulling if these incentives will work, or if retailers are offering the right incentives for the right reasons. 

Jon Zelner, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, told Insider that he has “mixed feelings” about retailers incentivizing vaccines. He added that workers should have at least one to two days of guaranteed paid-time-off “to recuperate from any symptoms following receipt of each vaccine dose if they need it.”

“I don’t think that it is inherently bad for employers to offer financial incentives, like compensating for the time that people spend to get the vaccine, but I am not sure it will necessarily be an effective way to increase vaccine uptake among people who are skeptical about the safety of the vaccines in the first instance,” he said.

Zelner does take issue with what he sees as the motives behind these incentives. He said retailers “want to increase vaccine uptake among employees so that they can remain open and continue to profit off of their labor.”

“Their interest in getting everyone vaccinated now has very little to do with respecting the humanity and well-being of their employees — which most have shown they care very little about — but instead getting them back behind the cash register or out working the retail floor,” he said.

Speaking at a press call on Wednesday for United for Respect research director Bianca Agustin criticized retail giants for not providing cash bonuses to workers who opt to get the vaccine. 

Agustin and workers from Walmart, Amazon, and Petco also said that an offer like Dollar General’s was not enough. United for Respect, a labor activist group, is calling retailers to distribute a $500 cash bonus to all workers who receive the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as up to three days of paid time off after each shot.

Of course, some retailers are forgoing incentives altogether. Those retailers include CVS and Walmart, companies leading the national push to vaccinate the public. 

“We’re educating essential workers and all associates on getting the vaccine as soon as they are eligible,” Walmart Executive Vice President of Health & Wellness Dr. Cheryl Pergus wrote in a statement. “We are strongly encouraging all associates to get vaccinated but are not mandating anyone receive the vaccine nor are we providing incentives at this time.”

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