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Employers say paying workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine saves lives and money in the long run. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images
  • Amtrak and other companies are paying employees extra to get the COVID-19 vaccination.
  • Company officials say the money is well spent because the vaccinations can help reduce sick leave among their workforce.
  • They add that healthy employees also keep customers and the community at large safe.

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Get the COVID-19 vaccine and get paid for it.

That may sound too good to be true, but it’s not.

Amtrak officials have announced that they’re allowing excused absences for employees receiving their COVID-19 vaccine during regularly scheduled work hours.

The train service will provide an allowance equivalent to 2 hours of straight time pay when employees submit vaccine documentation.

The transportation company isn’t alone in their incentive plan, which encourages vaccination without mandating it.

Healthline asked companies to explain why they’re going this route and talked with experts about the impact such programs could have on business, employees, and customers.

Amtrak, Aldi, Kroger, and McDonald’s are among a growing list of companies that are rewarding their employees for getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

Late last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updated its guidance, signaling that employers can implement mandatory vaccine policies.

However, employment law experts tell the Associated Press that tracking compliance, dealing with potential legal claims, and managing exemptions are contributing factors to why some companies won’t mandate them.

Incentives are a good way to encourage employees to get the shot.

Aldi is doing so by covering costs associated with vaccine administration and providing employees with 2 hours of pay for each dose they receive, up to 4 hours total, as well as scheduling flexibility for salaried employees.

A one-time $100 vaccine payment will be offered to all associates at Kroger grocery stores who receive the recommended doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and show appropriate proof of vaccination.

Kroger associates who can’t receive the vaccine due to medical or religious reasons will have the option of completing an educational health and safety course to receive the payment.

In a statement to Healthline, Tiffanie Boyd, chief people officer at McDonald’s USA, said that vaccination is essential in the fight against the pandemic and they’re actively encouraging McDonald’s employees to take this step.

The company will provide 4 hours of paid time to workers at corporate-owned U.S. restaurants and to U.S. corporate employees who receive the vaccine.

McDonald’s will also connect employees to trusted, third-party experts to provide information and answer questions regarding the vaccine.

Amtrak’s employees who miss work due to vaccine side effects will have that absence excused and pay protected for up to 48 hours after vaccination.

With appropriate documentation, Amtrak will also protect pay for employees who are unable to work more than 48 hours after vaccination.

Qiana Spain, the executive vice president and chief human resource officer at Amtrak, told Healthline that the vaccination of employees has a positive impact on the communities they serve.

“We believe the vaccine offers the best way to keep our employees safe and contribute to the wellness of local communities, and Amtrak’s goal is to have 100 percent of our employees vaccinated,” she said.

“Since we don’t have the ability to offer mass vaccinations to our employees onsite, we offered the allowance as an incentive for them to get vaccinated through the avenues they have available,” Spain said.

The company has developed this plan with the experience of the past year in mind.

“As of the end of January, we have paid out more than $15 million in pay protection for employees not able to work due to COVID-19 symptoms, quarantine, a positive test, or side effects from the vaccine,” Spain said, “and we estimate as we continue through this surge we expect for this number to grow.”

Spain added: “We estimate that vaccine payments will amount to about $3 million. If this motivates employees to get vaccinated, it should reduce the cost of employees unable to work due to COVID-19 symptoms, quarantine, or a positive test.”

An Aldi spokesperson told Healthline that the plan is an effective way to encourage vaccinations, avoid sick leave, and staffing shortages, but also protect customers.

“By encouraging employees to receive this critical vaccine and reduce obstacles that may be in their way, we’re able to support our employees who in turn, can support our customers and the communities we serve,” the spokesperson said. “We’re confident this will be a continuing trend in the industry. We are moving forward with our plan not only because we believe it’s in our employees’ best interest, but we also believe it is in the best interest of the communities we serve.”

The spokesperson said that it’s difficult to estimate how many employees will take advantage of the plan, but so far the response has been good.

“Employees have reacted overwhelmingly positive to the news of our plan to support them in receiving the vaccine, with many stating they are appreciative of the extra time and flexibility,” the Aldi spokesperson added.

Keeping team productivity high is one of the reasons employers will consider introducing these types of incentives.

“In current workplace environments in retail, customer service often involves a team of people all doing specific steps, like an assembly line. The observed performance depends on all members of the team working together,” said Ananth Iyer, PhD, MS, a professor of operations management at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management in Indiana.

“So any one person missing could impact team productivity. Also, any one person infected could impact others. As the economy recovers, companies have to ensure that there is sufficient capacity (people at work) to satisfy demand,” Iyer said.

Firms with a stable workforce in place will be more profitable.

“If an incentive gets their employees to be diligent and get to the vaccine facility as soon as their turn arises, it decreases capacity volatility for employers,” Iyer told Healthline. “All this means a better match between their capacity and customer demand, hence more profits.”

And the ripple effect of an employee transmitting the virus at the workplace can greatly affect business operations.

“While most firms are already practicing social distancing, etc., having an infected employee infect customers or other employees could have very bad outcomes for the location,” Iyer added. “Paying incentives decreases this risk and thus may be well worth the cost.”

Getting the vaccine into the arms of people was always going to involve the carrot and the stick approach, said Maureen Miller, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist and adjunct associate professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York.

“The stick in the U.S. was established pretty early, with the EEOC paving the way for employer-mandated vaccinations. Before employing this aggressive strategy, which will likely be subject to legal challenges, employers should seriously consider using incentives a.k.a., the carrot,” she told Healthline, pointing to various incentives like paid time off and discounts on insurance payments.

With new variants of the coronavirus spreading across the country, administering these vaccines is now more critical.

“We are in a cat and mouse game between vaccines and variants. Because of the sheer magnitude of the pandemic, more than 105 million known cases (which may be 10-fold underestimate), the chance for dangerous variants to appear and take hold is enormous,” Miller said.

“The only thing that will stop the mutations that create these variants, and the subsequent spread of these dangerous variants, is to stop transmission,” she said.

Vaccines have the potential to greatly diminish transmission, she added, but only if we can get them into arms quickly and on a massive scale, not only here in the United Staes but also around the world.

“Community spread of the coronavirus anywhere poses a huge threat to people everywhere. Whatever we can do to speed up the process — incentives, mass inoculation events and settings, mandates, if required, we should be doing it now,” she said, “before we find ourselves back at ground zero, having to vaccinate the global population once again against the new and more numerous variants.”