Here’s How Employers Can Help Achieve COVID-19 Herd Immunity

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Businesswoman wearing mask and holding sign that reads: "We can do this."

COVID-19 vaccines are now widely available in many parts of the country. By encouraging employees to get vaccinated, employers can help achieve herd immunity—which occurs when enough people become immune to a disease to halt its spread.

Employers have a critical role to play in helping their employees access accurate information and making it easier for them to get vaccinated, said Andy Slavitt, senior advisor for the White House COVID-19 Response Team, during a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) webcast that aired on May 6 for SHRM members.

Although many seniors (ages 65 and older) have received vaccines, less than half of working-age Americans (ages 18 to 64) have started the vaccination process as of May 5, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Younger adults may not feel the same sense of urgency as seniors to get vaccinated, but the threat from COVID-19 remains strong, Slavitt noted. In the last week, the CDC reported an average of about 50,000 new COVID-19 cases and 600 deaths each day.

"Strong confidence in the vaccines within your workplace leads to more people getting vaccinated, which leads to fewer COVID-19 illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths," according to the CDC.

Here are some ways employers can incentivize workers and make it easier for them to get vaccinated.

Time Off Is Key

Many employers are ensuring workers have a day off to get vaccinated and extra time off if they're not feeling well post-vaccination. Slavitt noted that side effects are generally mild—and severe reactions are extremely rare—but it's important to let employees know "that you got their backs" and time off is available "if they do feel a little under the weather."

Organizations with fewer than 500 employees may be eligible for a paid-leave tax credit when they provide full pay for employees who take time off to get and recover from a COVID-19 vaccination. The tax credit covers up to $511 per day for each vaccinated employee and is funded through an American Rescue Plan program that provides tax credits to eligible employers that voluntarily provide paid leave for certain COVID-19-related reasons.

Paid leave related to vaccinations is available from April through September, noted Tom West, deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of the Treasury. He explained that employers should count full-time and part-time employees when determining whether their headcount qualifies for the tax credit.

Employers should note that they may be required to provide such time off under state or local laws. For example, New York lawmakers passed a special rule requiring employers to provide all employees in the state up to four hours of paid leave per COVID-19 vaccine injection. In other locations, paid leave may be available under permanent or emergency state and local leave laws.

A Range of Incentives

Recent SHRM research shows that 74 percent of employers plan to recommend that their workers get vaccinated, but 88 percent are either unsure about whether they will offer incentives or are not planning to offer such incentives.

"It doesn't have to be a superfluous incentive or a huge incentive," said Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, SHRM's chief knowledge officer. He said employers should ensure they are driving the message home, sustaining their culture and making sure workers know they are valued.

"What we have learned is that incentives work," Slavitt said. "Even very small incentives." Some employers reported a 50 percent increase in the number of employees interested in getting vaccinated after being offered a gift card, he noted.

Employers have been "incredibly creative and productive" when it comes to providing incentives for employees to get vaccinated, he observed. Employers are offering a range of effective incentives, such as transportation gift cards and one-time cash payments.

SHRM, for example, has an open-leave policy that allows its employees to take paid leave for the day they receive the vaccine as well as any additional days needed for recovery. SHRM also has added the vaccination as a self-reported activity to accumulate credits toward its Motivate Me wellness program. Obtaining the vaccine is worth $25 toward the wellness program, which is distributed through a health savings account.

Maryland is offering state employees $100 if they are fully vaccinated and agree to get a booster shot, if needed. Gov. Larry Hogan strongly encouraged businesses in the state to consider offering similar incentives. "These vaccines are safe and effective, they're free, and they're readily available with or without an appointment," he said in a press statement.

Some larger employers are facilitating onsite vaccinations or arranging them through nearby clinics. Smaller employers may want to contact their insurance provider or a pharmacy chain to coordinate employee vaccination, just as they might do each year to encourage workers to get flu shots, Slavitt suggested.

HR's Role

Demand for vaccinations is leveling off, but HR can help motivate more people to get vaccinated by providing reliable and accurate information. HR professionals know that people make decisions at different paces, Slavitt said. Some people booked vaccine appointments as soon as they were available, while others will take more time to review the data before deciding.

"Neither one of those [approaches] is wrong," he said. "We're now just getting to the people who require more information … so it's important that we don't ostracize people whose decision-making process is different from people who knew instantly that they wanted to take a vaccine."

Employees may have questions about side effects, how vaccines affect fertility, and other concerns. "All of these have good scientific answers to them, and we just want to make sure that people get the straight story," Slavitt explained. If people have the information they need to make a decision, he said, then hopefully many more people will decide to get vaccinated.

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