The economic obstacles to vaccination
So far, the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the United States has been a success. There have been 286 million doses administered, enough to cover about 45% of the population. Nearly 50% of the population — and over 60% of adults — have received at least one dose. The number of daily new cases has plummeted from a peak of about 750 per million people in early January, near the start of the vaccine rollout, to just 76 per million people today.
The declining case rate and wide availability of vaccines have allowed most places to reopen. As the pandemic rages elsewhere in the world, there is a growing sense of normality in the United States. But to prevent future COVID-19 surges, many more people need to be vaccinated. Experts believe that perhaps 75% of all Americans need to be vaccinated to bring the pandemic permanently under control. That means millions of people who have not yet chosen to be vaccinated need to take the shot.
The vaccination campaign has quickly shifted from providing shots to a group of Americans desperate to be vaccinated to convincing a more circumspect group. A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation provides insight on what's holding some Americans back. While there are some people (13%) who say they will not get vaccinated for COVID-19 under any circumstances, a larger group has more practical concerns.
Among unvaccinated Americans, 48% say they are concerned they "might need to miss work if the side effects of the vaccine make them feel sick for a day or more." This group includes "nearly two-thirds (64%) of unvaccinated Hispanic adults and over half of Black adults (55%)." This may reflect the fact that Black and Hispanic Americans are less likely to have employment with substantial paid time off (PTO) benefits.
Among unvaccinated Americans taking a "wait-and-see" approach, nearly three-in-ten "say that they would be more likely to get the COVID-19 vaccine if their employer gave them paid time off to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects." Among Hispanics taking a "wait-and-see" approach, 54% say they would be more likely to get a vaccine if they were able to get paid time off to get the shot and recover.
On April 21, recognizing that concerns about missed work are a barrier for many people, President Biden called on "every employer in America to offer full pay to their employees for any time off needed to get vaccinated and for any time it takes to recover from the after-effects of vaccination." Companies with less than 500 employees are eligible for a tax credit "to provide full pay for any time their employees need to get a COVID-19 vaccination or recover from that vaccination."
Larger companies, however, are on the honors system. The Biden administration is encouraging them to incentivize their employees to get vaccinated by providing paid time off and other benefits. Popular Information found that some employers are stepping up to the challenge while others are doing little to nothing.
Corporations providing paid time off to get vaccinated and recover
In response to worker concerns, some companies are making sure employees are fully compensated for the time it takes to receive the vaccine and recover from any side effects.
Amtrak, for example, is giving workers the equivalent of two hours of regular wages as well as offering “paid time off up to 48 hours for those who are dealing with side effects.” Similarly, Walmart is giving workers “two hours of paid time off” to receive the vaccine and providing “up to three days paid leave for adverse reactions to the vaccine.” The company is also giving all hourly and salaried employees a $75 “thank you” bonus for getting vaccinated.
Corporations providing additional paid time off to get vaccinated, but not recovery
The CDC advises employers to “offer flexible, nonpunitive sick leave options (e.g., paid sick leave) for employees with systemic signs and symptoms after vaccination.” But many companies providing extra paid time off to receive the vaccine do not offer additional time off for recovery. This means some workers experiencing side effects may lose income. Other workers may be forced to draw down a limited pool of PTO hours that they need for vacation or other medical issues.
Chobani, for example, is covering up to six hours of additional paid time to allow workers to receive the vaccine. This calculation, however, does not take into account vaccine recovery. The supermarket chain Aldi announced that the company planned to “provide employees with two hours of pay for each dose they receive, up to four hours total, as well as scheduling flexibility for salaried employees.” Other companies that are compensating workers for the time it takes to get vaccinated, but not recovery, include Darden Restaurants, Dollar General, McDonald’s, and Trader Joe’s.
The difference between corporate policy and corporate practice
T-Mobile told Popular Information it was offering flexible hours to salaried employees and “paid time not worked (PTNW)” to hourly employees “to get the vaccine through the end of the year.” The company explained that employees don’t have to use their PTO to receive the vaccine, but that they could use “their PTO if they have side effects that make them unable to work the next day.” Still, it is unclear if this policy was communicated clearly to all employees. One T-Mobile retail worker told Popular Information that this was not a policy the company has been “open about in retail” and shared that they were not paid when they requested a day off to receive their first dose.
Corporations not providing additional paid time off for vaccination or recover
While some companies are taking meaningful steps to assuage workers’ fears about losing pay, others are doing very little.
Popular Information reached out to General Motors after a factory worker shared that the company was not offering workers paid time off to receive vaccines. The company confirmed its policy and said it is offering “two excused days off after the second dose of vaccine to deal with any side effects from the vaccine.” When asked by Popular Information how the company was encouraging vaccines in lieu of financial compensation, the company cited their “GM COVID-19 Employee Guide” and media campaigns.
A CVS pharmacist told Popular Information the company is not offering additional paid time off for vaccination. CVS, which has been a key player in vaccine administration, told Popular Information that it has “made it as easy as possible for employees to get vaccinated by providing access to dedicated appointments and holding employee-only clinics at stores and other worksites.” The pharmacist told Popular Information that the “company made it very difficult to figure out if they offered additional time off for the vaccine,” describing CVS’s lack of support as “extremely disappointing.”
Union Pacific also does not offer employees paid time off to receive the vaccine. Popular Information contacted the company after a Union Pacific engineer shared that their employer was not offering additional paid time off. Union Pacific told Popular Information that it “encourage[s] employees to receive the vaccine and [is] willing to work with those who may have difficulty making that possible.” They added that they were offering “incentives, including free UP-branded merchandise, to anyone who receives the appropriate vaccination dose.”
The impact of state law
In 14 states and the District of Columbia, employers are required to offer paid time off. All but two of those states have a higher percentage of the population fully vaccinated than the national average (39%). This might be a coincidence but is consistent with the polling data. Access to paid time off can make it more likely for a significant number of people to get vaccinated.
New York has taken things a step further. A new law that went into effect in March guarantees "public and private employees time off to receive the COVID-19 vaccination." The law requires employers to provide "up to four hours of excused leave per injection that will not be charged against any other leave the employee has earned or accrued." New York's law does not provide additional paid time off to recover from vaccine side effects.
Currently, 45% of New Yorkers are fully vaccinated, which is among the top 10 highest vaccination rates.
My employer provides 4 hours of leave during each pay period (2 week increments) to allow for the time necessary to obtain vaccine doses, testing, etc. But if I had needed more time for recovery, I would have needed to divert my regular vacation or sick leave. I scheduled both doses for Fridays so that I would have a weekend to recover, if I needed it. After the first dose, no problem. But the weekend after the second dose was a lost weekend... Unfortunately, not everyone will have a choice to schedule their vaccination before their scheduled time off. And some people don’t HAVE time off - they work multiple jobs.
Employers will benefit from having vaccinated employees, much more than they risk employees’ abuse of a more generous vaccination time-off policy. Every sick leave policy is, effectively, an honor system, so abuses can happen. But ending this pandemic is much more important than the cost of a couple extra days off. Employees need the time; making it available will provide long-term benefits in employee health and loyalty.
I’ll give a positive shoutout to those corporations doing the right thing to help their underpaid employees get vaccinated. However, for those who aren’t cooperating I can’t help being reminded about how much they are starting to resemble religious organizations that are often the exception to so many of our laws, rules and regulations... paying no or next to no taxes, dealing with pedophilia, sexual harassment and other crimes ‘internally’, and encouraging or telling their congregants/employees not to get vaccinated. Just pondering some of the similarities in organizations who operate outside our laws.