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Consumer companies float incentives over mandates for US worker COVID-19 shots


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Consumer companies float incentives over mandates for US worker COVID-19 shots

Consumer companies are offering incentives to thousands of their U.S. employees to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and helping out with government distribution efforts. But so far they have shied away from handing down vaccine mandates.

Dollar General Corp. and Aldi Inc. are offering some workers who get vaccinated up to four hours in extra pay. Each company also has perks for other groups of their employees. Maplebear Inc., which does business as Instacart, will pay $25 to part-time in-store shoppers, shift leads and certain independent contractors who can offer proof of vaccinations, intended as financial assistance for working time missed to get the shot.

Meat producers JBS USA Holdings Inc. and Pilgrim's Pride Corp., owned by Brazil-based JBS SA, are offering $100 to U.S. employees who voluntarily take the vaccine. Outbreaks of COVID-19 across the meat supply chain have challenged the industry during the pandemic.

"Our goal is to achieve the highest voluntary participation rate possible and prevent barriers to getting the vaccine," Nikki Richardson, a JBS USA and Pilgrim's Pride spokesperson, said in an email.

The perks come as vaccine rollout is slowgoing and health officials must face hesitancy toward the shots from some members of the public. Companies are looking to incentives over mandates to make immunizing their workers as easy as possible, said David French, senior vice president of government relations for the National Retail Federation.

"From an operations standpoint, the more broadly vaccinated your workforce is, the less likely you are to be disrupted by people being out for illness," French said in an interview.

Some businesses are also working on vaccine distribution as President Joe Biden pursues an ambitious plan to vaccinate 100 million Americans during his first 100 days in office. Starbucks Corp. and Costco Wholesale Corp. are working with Washington state on vaccine distribution. Inc., which reported in October 2020 that nearly 20,000 of its employees had contracted COVID-19, has offered to help Biden's administration distribute the vaccines nationally.

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Costco declined to comment on its vaccine work. Starbucks, Dollar General, Aldi and Amazon did not respond to media inquiries.

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Mandate hesitation

While companies can mandate vaccines in most circumstances, workers with medical disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs may be exempt from such requirements, Amy Karff Halevy, a Bracewell LLP partner and employment lawyer, said in an interview. Employers may need to bargain with a union before implementing a vaccination program and an employee may be protected from retaliation if they refuse vaccination because of a reasonable belief that a medical condition may cause a reaction to the vaccine resulting in serious injury or death, Halevy said.

Companies may also be hesitant to mandate a vaccination over fears that they may lose talent or have to fire workers who fail to comply, said Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, in an interview. Employers may also be fearful of potentially facing a lawsuit over a mandate.

"It's like the flu vaccine — not everybody takes it. If the government says, 'If your employee doesn't take it, then they can't work for you,' then absolutely I'll enforce it," said Claudio Ferri, co-founder and co-CEO of restaurant chain Kisses From Italy Inc. The company is not pushing a vaccine on workers, though Ferri pledged to follow public health guidelines on the matter.

Spoonful of sugar

In addition to extra pay, incentive options could include additional paid time off and a reduction in healthcare premiums, Reiss said. Employers could also bring in doctors for question-and-answer sessions and hold designated times for employees to get the vaccine. "One of the problems for workers is 'How do I get access? How do I schedule it?'" Reiss said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises state and local governments to prioritize healthcare workers and long-term care facility residents as the first to receive vaccines. People 75 years and older and front-line essential workers such as agriculture or grocery store employees are next in line, followed by other essential workers, including those in the food service industry, people between the ages 65 and 74, and people with underlying medical conditions between the ages 16 and 64.

The Kroger Co. is providing vaccines to eligible groups of its employees and customers through the grocer's pharmacies and clinics. The company is also encouraging employees to get the shot when their turn comes up, according to a statement. Sysco Corp. is finalizing its vaccine protocol and internal messaging and declined to comment further on its plans.

Target Corp. did not mention specific incentives but is working with its benefits team to make the vaccine free and available to employees, according to a spokesperson. CVS Health Corp. pharmacies within Target stores plan to offer the vaccine to employees and shoppers.

Walmart Inc. is working on efforts to administer the vaccine to both employees and customers throughout the country. The retailer has no current plans to offer incentives for employees, though the company allows for up to three days of paid leave for any side effects from the vaccine, according to a spokesperson.

Retailers like Walmart and Amazon will face additional challenges from accessing the vaccine in its early days of distribution and related logistical challenges, D.A. Davidson analyst Tom Forte said in an interview.

"If we were at a stage where getting the COVID-19 vaccine was like getting the flu shot, then you could say that Walmart and Amazon could require or incent front-line employees to get vaccinated," Forte said.

Trade groups the National Retail Federation and National Restaurant Association have separately called for retail and restaurant workers to be among the early recipients of the vaccine as a measure to protect overall public health. While employers outside the healthcare sector typically have not required workers to get vaccinated, that could change given these are not typical times, said Halevy, the employment lawyer.

"As the vaccines become truly readily available for everybody we may start seeing employers taking sort of a different approach with regard to the vaccine and actually mandating vaccines for their employees," Halevy said.