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Will offering employees vaccination incentives work?

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A man prepares a COVID-19 vaccine.

Could incentives make employees more or less suspicious of COVID-19 vaccinations? Chet Strange/AFP via Getty Images

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As states continue to expand their criteria about who’s eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine, some workplaces are offering incentives to their employees to get immunized. 

These incentives range from stipends and extra pay to gift cards and even time off.

But there’s plenty of debate among behavioral economists about whether incentives work. 

Incentives are a first step for many businesses to encourage employees to get the vaccine, even though there is precedent for them to require it.

Mark Goldstein, an employment lawyer with Reed Smith, said it’s a difficult balancing act.

“All the clients that I advise on this are trying to be sensitive to people’s views on this issue, but also trying to make sure that everyone has the safest work environment possible,” Goldstein said.

The city of Phoenix is paying its employees $75. Grocery store chain Aldi is offering up to four hours of pay

“Amtrak is allowing excused absences for employees receiving vaccination during their regularly scheduled work hours, when they submit the documentation of receiving the vaccine,” said Kimberly Woods, a spokesperson for Amtrak.

It’s also offering up to two hours’ worth of bonus pay.

But Goldstein said rewarding vaccinations remains legally murky. And there’s the question of whether incentives even work. 

Cynthia Cryder, an economist at Washington University in St. Louis, said incentives are not going to change how much people trust the vaccine. 

“In fact, the evidence that we have suggests that when there’s higher compensation, people assume there’s greater risk involved,” she said.

Cryder’s research has also found offering rewards can raise suspicions among people who previously had no opinion.  

There’s another cost, said Denise Rousseau, an organizational psychologist from Carnegie Mellon. Incentives can strip the ethical component from getting vaccinated.

“If you have to reward me for this, you want me to do this for reasons that aren’t about morality and aren’t about social good. You want to get more work out of me,” Rousseau said.

As vaccines become more available, incentives may lose appeal. And the American workforce may be split between those who get vaccinated and those who refuse.  

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