Getting your employees vaccinated makes sense -- for business as well as general health and safety. Private-sector participation in helping people get vaccinated is also likely to be crucial in revitalizing the economy

The chaotic and mismanaged vaccine rollout has left the U.S. in a situation where industry has to help as much as it can, notes Dr. Jeremy Levin, chairman of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a nonprofit devoted to educating the public and health care industry on the safety and efficacy of vaccines. "Companies need to ensure that all employees have access to not just the vaccine, but education about what the vaccine does and what the vaccines offer them and their families," he says.

While companies can technically require employees to get vaccinated, they ought to tread lightly. Doing so can trigger legal claims if proper accommodations aren't made or underlying health conditions are exposed. So the next best step is encouragement--or an actual incentive to boost employees' willingness to get a jab. 

From Cash to Vacation Days

That could include hard incentives like cash or gift cards or soft incentives such as an extra day of paid time off. Dan Bailey, president of WikiLawn, a lawn mowing and landscaping company that connects clients with gig workers, says he's offering a flat cash bonus of $500 to employees who get both vaccine doses and can provide proof they've done so. He's also covering costs associated with getting a vaccine, such as paying for child care in the event parents can't spare the time to get the vaccine.

"It's very important to me that all of our employees get the vaccine. While I don't necessarily feel comfortable mandating it for everyone, I am heavily incentivizing it," says Bailey. He notes that it will be a requirement for sales team members who, once it's safe to do so, will go back to working with clients in person. 

Jake Hill, CEO of DebtHammer, a personal finance publication, says that while he expects his employees to be socially conscious enough to get a vaccine, his company is offering $200 and some additional paid time off as a bonus. Rex Freiberger, CEO of Gadget Review, a technology and lifestyle publication, says he's giving employees who get the vaccine an extra week of paid vacation, effective as soon as they finish both doses.

The goal is safety, of course. But there's also a financial incentive for employers to encourage employees to get vaccinated. John Ross, CEO of Test Prep Insight, an online education company with 10 employees, notes that being remote has killed his team's productivity. But he says he doesn't feel comfortable bringing his team back to the office until they've been vaccinated. "Once they all get their doses, I'll feel like I've done my part as the CEO in providing a workspace that is safe and secure," he says. He's offering employees a day off to get their second dose plus the two days following, along with a $100 gift card from Starbucks, Amazon, or REI. He also promised to take the entire team out to a nice dinner once everyone's had the jab. 

The Problem With Incentives

Not all of your employees will be open to the idea of being paid to get the vaccine, especially if they're skeptics. Paying people to get vaccinated might paradoxically increase suspicion about the safety and the efficacy of vaccines, notes Dr. Bob Bollinger, a professor of infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and inventor of Emocha Health. "It could contribute to vaccine hesitancy," he adds.

Alternatively, employers could offer incentives through a group medical plan, such as a reduction in premium or their deductible, says Kara Govro, a senior legal analyst at ThinkHR and Mammoth HR, on-demand HR companies that deliver advisory and technology services to more than 300,000 small and midsize businesses. Insurance incentives are good because they're not taxed and somebody else runs the program, but they obviously won't give employees that immediate cash-in-hand feeling.

Another issue employers may run into is that the program may exclude some members of the team, which could leave them feeling ostracized. For those who are unable to get the vaccine because of a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, for example, you may want to create another kind of incentive. This could include taking a training course on virus transmission and reducing the spread, or having them submit a negative Covid-19 test on a regular basis. Not providing an exception for employees could set you up for a potential discrimination claim, notes Govro.

It's also a good idea to keep private any information pertaining to employee vaccinations. Since the vaccines are being administered in phases--and people with vulnerabilities are getting priority--making an individual's vaccination information public could reveal their underlying health condition. That would violate the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, a law that prohibits the use of genetic information, including medical history, in making employment decisions. It's also best to avoid setting a timeline. If you set a narrow window for employees to get vaccinated, and someone is unable to do so during that time because, for example, they're young and healthy or are unable to find child care, there's grounds for an age or other discrimination claim.