As COVID-19 vaccinations ramp up in the U.S., employers are increasingly looking at their own potential role in employee vaccinations. This is especially true because vaccinations could help employees return to a safe workplace. But the way forward for employers is not completely clear. Should employers directly vaccinate their employees? Simply encourage vaccination? Or take an entirely different approach?
Here we examine some of the main considerations for the role of employers in COVID vaccination efforts, both now and in the future.
After being particularly hard hit by the pandemic, the U.S. has been one of the world leaders in vaccination rates. As of April 29, 2021, 43% of the U.S. population had been at least partially vaccinated, and 29.5% had been fully vaccinated. On the global level, the U.S. is only outpaced in vaccination rates by Israel (62% at least partially vaccinated) and the United Kingdom (50%).
However, the vast majority of the world is running far behind these vaccination rates. There is a large disparity between richer and poorer countries, with many developing countries not having administered even a single dose of vaccine due to a lack of access. While high-income countries worldwide have at least partially vaccinated 28% of their population, they represent only 16% of the world’s population.
The vaccination disparity between rich and poor countries is an obvious concern for humanitarian reasons. And the more the pandemic rages, the greater the risk of variants emerging that can evade the protection of the current vaccines.
So far, the mass vaccination efforts in the U.S. have been spearheaded by the federal, state, and local governments. But what will happen when these large-scale government vaccinations end? Will private employers take up the mantle of vaccine administration for their employees? Or will partnerships with retail pharmacies and provider networks fill the gap?
Many companies have either offered or shown interest in workplace vaccination clinics as a way to speed up employee vaccinations. This relieves employees of the burden of tracking down individual appointments, which is especially difficult for those without the time or technical know-how to constantly scour vaccination websites. It also makes it convenient for workers to receive their doses without traveling to a vaccination site or disrupting their work schedule. And there is hope that vaccine-hesitant employees will be encouraged by seeing co-workers safely vaccinated at the job site.
In Illinois, several health departments have provided vaccine doses to large employers with in-house medical staff, so they can administer the vaccination themselves. For example, healthcare company Baxter had vaccinated about half of its frontline manufacturing workers at one workplace clinic by early April 2021. Ford Motor Company also recently announced plans to vaccinate employees at workplace clinics in Michigan, Ohio, and Missouri.
Other companies in Illinois have used different approaches to workplace vaccinations. Local health departments have organized some workplace clinics, and some have connected employers with medical clinics, pharmacies, or occupational health companies. For example, the manufacturer Nosco hired occupational health company Corporate Wellness Providers to run workplace vaccination clinics, administering doses provided by the county health department.
Even though it’s difficult to administer doses directly, employers are finding other ways to participate in the mass vaccination efforts. Many companies are taking steps to encourage their employees to get vaccinated. While there is some legal authority for employers being able to mandate employee vaccination, this poses issues in terms of employee morale and legal hurdles. Vaccination encouragement, instead of mandates, remains the most common approach.
The vaccination encouragement efforts of employers generally take one of 3 forms: paid time off, direct incentive payments, and employee education.
Many large employers are offering hourly pay for vaccination shots. Amtrak offers 2 hours of regular wages when the employee provides proof of vaccination. Other companies following this trend include Dollar General (4 hours of pay for completed vaccination) and McDonald’s (up to 4 hours of paid time off for vaccination). The idea is to allow employees the time they need to get the vaccine without requiring them to take time out of their paid work schedule.
Other employers opt for direct incentive payments to employees, instead of paid time off. Some examples include the meat-processing company JBS USA and Pilgrims and the Kroger supermarket chain, both of which offer $100 incentive bonuses.
An interesting example of this approach in the gig industry is the grocery delivery service Instacart. Although Instacart utilizes gig workers who do not receive health benefits, it is offering these workers a $25 Vaccine Support stipend upon proof of vaccination.
Employers can also play a vital role in educating employees on vaccine safety and effectiveness. Companies from around the world are using different methods for this approach:
There is a high potential for these employer education efforts to expand in the future, with the later need for booster shots and the spread of COVID-19 variants. It should be noted that many enterprise employers in the United States also employ thousands of workers overseas, and their efforts to vaccinate their staff does not stop at international borders.
What role will employers play in the future with employee vaccinations? Will they administer booster shots or offer annual COVID vaccination shots? And will they be able to see data on employee vaccinations?
A recent McKinsey report makes several recommendations for employers in this regard, including: (1) monitoring employee eligibility for vaccination, which will change as different jurisdictions proceed through eligibility phases; (2) collaborating with local public health leaders; and (3) asking for employee feedback to continually adjust the process. These steps would also logically apply to future booster shots, as they may also need to be rolled out in a phased approach.
Vaccination data may be a different story, since it will be difficult to impossible for employers to see this data for their employees. This is because, at present, vaccinations are not being administered in connection with medical claims. The situation is especially difficult for self-insured employers, who rely on employee population data to ensure the best healthcare for their workforce.
But this makes the vaccination encouragement efforts all the more important for employers. The current methods of paid time off, direct incentive payments, and education will likely be just as necessary for future booster shots or annual shots. Employee education might prove even more critical, since the efficacy and potential side effects will likely differ among the various vaccines and their respective booster shots. Though no one can predict the future trajectory of the pandemic in the U.S. or worldwide, we may see a future vaccine booster administered in much the same way as your office’s annual flu shot clinic.
For employers seeking to maintain the health of their workers, the COVID-19 pandemic is clearly a top-of-mind concern. With creative actions and flexibility, companies can use their vaccination efforts as an opportunity to boost employee morale, build loyalty, and improve the health and safety of their populations.