Encourage or Require? Employers Take Different Tacks on COVID-19 Vaccinations

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. February 1, 2021
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Encourage or Require? Employers Take Different Tacks on COVID-19 Vaccinations

​More employers are encouraging workers to get COVID-19 vaccines by offering paid time off or incentives, but at least one is requiring employees to get the vaccine before returning to work.

Although Chobani does not have a mandatory vaccination policy, the food company has announced it will cover up to six hours of time for its employees to get vaccinated—three hours for each of the two COVID-19 vaccine doses when available to its workforce. Chobani, with roughly 2,200 employees across the U.S. and manufacturing operations in South Edmeston, N.Y., and Twin Falls, Idaho, is among the first food manufacturers to offer paid time off for vaccines.

"We're taking our mission to keep our people safe one step further today," said Chobani President and COO Peter McGuinness in Westchester, N.Y. "It's simple, fair and the right thing to do."

While vaccines aren't widely available yet, the company is working closely with state and local officials to advise its team about the opportunities to receive a vaccine. Chobani also is actively looking into hosting onsite vaccination clinics as soon as food-processing workers are eligible to get vaccines.

Leaving Choice to Employees

At Walmart, "We are strongly encouraging all associates to get vaccinated, once eligible. However, we are not requiring our associates to receive the vaccine," said Rebecca Thomason, senior manager, corporate communications with Walmart in Bentonville, Ark.

"Like many other businesses, we recognize that this is a personal choice, and we're providing resources for our associates to learn more about the vaccine as they evaluate their decision," she said. "It will also be free and accessible to our associates."

For Walmart employees who get the vaccine, the company has enhanced its COVID-19 emergency leave policy to include three days of paid leave for any vaccine side effects.

Instacart is providing a vaccine support stipend of $25 for each employee who leaves work to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

JBS USA and Pilgrim's will provide a $100 incentive bonus to any U.S. team member who voluntarily gets a COVID-19 vaccination.

"Like everyone, our employees are looking for answers and are trying to sort fact from fiction, so we've made it a priority to address this head on," said Tom Grape, chairman and CEO of Benchmark Senior Living in Waltham, Mass.

This has meant ensuring Benchmark employees have a platform to get answers through virtual town halls with the company's Coronavirus Advisory Council members. The company also is sending vaccine myth-buster e-mails debunking disinformation and addressing common hesitations.

Jamie Coakley, vice president of people at New York City-based IT firm Electric, said, "At Electric, we don't interfere with the personal health decisions of our employees. We will not restrict people from coming to the office if they choose not to be vaccinated. That is their personal decision."

She added that "many people have alternative vaccination beliefs or even pre-existing conditions that may prevent them from being able to be vaccinated."

[see SHRM members-only COVID-19 Vaccination Resources]

Considering Making Vaccines Mandatory

Other employers are considering making COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for employees.

"The worst thing that I believe I will ever do in my career is the letters that I have written to the surviving family members of co-workers that we have lost to the coronavirus," said Scott Kirby, CEO at United Airlines in Chicago. "And so, for me, because I have confidence in the safety of the vaccine—and I recognize it's controversial—I think the right thing to do is for United Airlines, and for other companies, to require the vaccines and to make them mandatory."

But he added, "That said, one, we have to have the logistic challenges worked out. Two, I don't think United will get away with and can realistically be the only company that requires vaccines and makes them mandatory. We need some others. We need some others to show leadership, particularly in the health care industry."

Mandatory Vaccines

Law firm Davis Wright Tremaine (DWT) has come out with a vaccine policy mandating that employees receive vaccines in order to return to the office. 

"DWT continues to place the health and safety of all of our lawyers and staff as our highest priority. As vaccines against COVID-19 become increasingly available, we are adopting a policy to safeguard the health of our employees and their families, our clients and visitors, and our communities. We believe it is our responsibility to do our part, and we need everyone's help to be able to get back to more normalized operations as quickly as we can," said Jeff Gray, DWT managing partner in Seattle and San Francisco.

Key elements of the DWT policy are:

  • Once an employee is eligible based on his or her state's protocols, the employee is encouraged to get vaccinated as promptly as possible.
  • Allowing for a reasonable period to get vaccinated once eligible, only those who have been vaccinated will be allowed in the office or to attend firm-sponsored events. In the coming months, proof of vaccination will also be required.
  • Those unable to be vaccinated due to a disability, advice of a medical provider or religious beliefs are to contact HR to explore reasonable accommodations.
  • The firm will provide for paid time off to receive the vaccine and recover from side effects, if needed.
  • The firm will reimburse for the cost of the vaccine in the event the government or the employee's insurance does not cover it.
  • Until the vaccines are widely available and significant portions of the population become vaccinated, employees will continue to work from home unless work requires them to come into the office. If employees do come to the office, they are to observe all current firm health and safety protocols—even if the employees have been vaccinated.

In addition, the firm announced that if it is able, it will provide in-office vaccinations to its lawyers and staff, as it has done with flu shots in the past.

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