With COVID-19 vaccine rollout well underway in the United States — a reported 50% of Americans are fully vaccinated — employers are increasingly welcoming employees back to the office. However, vaccine hesitancy is still prevalent in the country, which has caused some organizations to flirt with the idea of incentivizing those workers to receive their shots.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission weighed in on the matter on Friday in its updated guidance, which stated that employers can offer bonuses and other incentives to encourage employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine. This guidance brings clarity to what was considered a legal gray area during the pandemic.
“Federal EEO laws do not prevent or limit employers from offering incentives to employees to voluntarily provide documentation or other confirmation of vaccination obtained from a third party (not the employer) in the community, such as a pharmacy, personal health care provider, or public clinic,” the EEOC said in its release.
However, employers that administer vaccines to their employees must ensure the incentives aren’t coercive, the EEOC added.
“Because vaccinations require employees to answer pre-vaccination disability-related screening questions, a very large incentive could make employees feel pressured to disclose protected medical information,” the commission said.
The agency enforces federal workplace anti-discrimination laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Title VII and the ADA require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who, because of a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, practice or observance, do not get vaccinated for COVID-19, unless providing an accommodation would pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business, the EEOC said. Employers with such a requirement also may need to respond to allegations that the requirement has a disparate impact on, or disproportionately excludes, an employee based on protected characteristics including age, race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
Employers must also keep worker vaccination information confidential if they choose to obtain it, to comply with federal disability law, the agency said.
Some employers opted to proceed with COVID-19 vaccine incentives without an official green light from the commission. The questions revolved around whether the incentives could violate federal anti-discrimination laws if they’re deemed to be involuntary, or if they exclude certain workers who can’t or won’t take the vaccine.
There’s still mixed feelings on whether incentives will persuade employees who distrust the benefits of vaccines, but it could provide a nudge for employees without strong feelings one way or the other, said David Zieg, MD, clinical services leader at Mercer.
About the Author
Brett Christie is the managing editor of Workspan Daily.