Dollar General Will Pay Workers to Get a Covid-19 Vaccine

Dollar General Will Pay Workers to Get a Covid-19 Vaccine

Retailer is one of the first to dangle extra pay to staff to encourage them to get coronavirus shots once available

A sign is seen outside a Dollar General store in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: REUTERS)
A sign is seen outside a Dollar General store in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: REUTERS)

Dollar General Corp. is offering employees a deal: Go get a Covid-19 vaccine and receive four hours of pay.

The retailer, which has 157,000 employees, is among the first large U.S. employers to incentivize staff to be vaccinated, a sign that companies with essential workers see mass inoculation as critical in overcoming the pandemic.

Grocery stores, airlines and transit companies are jockeying for priority access to Covid-19 vaccines for their workers, hoping to protect them from rising case counts nationally and give customers assurance, which in turn buoys business.

Some big employers have said they want as many workers as possible to be vaccinated but will stop short of requiring staff to get shots.

Verizon Communications Inc. told staff this week it won't require them to get vaccinated, and CVS Health Corp., whose pharmacists are distributing vaccines and are themselves eligible for doses, said it encourages but doesn't mandate shots.

Many hourly workers face challenges in getting to vaccine appointments, from child-care needs and transportation limitations to scheduling constraints from holding multiple jobs.

Some retail workers are wary of seeking medical services because they receive the minimum wage and often lack access to work-sponsored health insurance coverage or paid time off.

"We felt the right thing to do was to break down these barriers to vaccination," said Todd Vasos, Dollar General's chief executive, adding that he didn't want expenses associated with child care, transit or lost work hours to keep workers from getting shots.

"We believe as the vaccine continues to gain momentum that we've got to get it to rural America," he said.

About 75% of Dollar General stores are in rural areas or small towns.

The company will ask workers to check a box verifying that they have received a dose to get the four hours of pay but won't ask to see a vaccination card or other proof.

Dollar General will provide paid time off to staff who have adverse reactions to the vaccine.

The vaccine-incentive program won't have a material impact on the company's finances, a spokesman said.

Deemed an essential retailer, Dollar General and rivals such as Walmart Inc. were able to remain open during much of last year and logged strong sales of groceries and other household items.

The company told investors the pandemic had led to a "significant sales benefit" and reported a $2 billion profit in the first three quarters of its fiscal year, a 71% increase from the same period in the prior year.

Dollar General spent $173 million on employee bonuses as of Nov. 17, and during the pandemic began offering paid sick leave.

Other companies are considering one-time bonuses or paid time off the day after a vaccine appointment to encourage staff to get shots.

Some employers are hesitant to begin offering incentives before there is clarity on which workers will be eligible for doses in each state. While the federal government provides prioritization guidance, state and local health officials are charged with making final decisions on who is eligible when.

"The confusion for the employer and the employee is significant" over when doses will be available, said Geoff Freeman, chief executive of the Consumer Brands Association, a food-industry group.

That threatens workers' ability to keep manufacturing lines up and running and shelves stocked, he added.

In many states it is unclear how shots will be administered to different types of workers when they are eligible; some may need to travel to central hubs, while others have access at work.

Some meatpacking companies expect to administer doses on-site at processing plants, using existing teams of medical workers that typically tend to on-the-job injuries and now also check for Covid-19 symptoms.

Public-health experts warn that even after staff are vaccinated, workers will still need to wear masks, social-distance and follow additional safety measures. Little is known about whether those who have been vaccinated can continue to spread the virus.

Essential workers have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, having to report to in-person roles and interact with the public as the virus has spread.

Some retailers have offered cash bonuses and paid sick time but have been criticized for not doing more to support and protect their workers, while their profits have grown during the pandemic.

"The [vaccine] prioritization costs them nothing but comes with the great benefit of having inoculated staff who may feel more comfortable working and give shoppers comfort," said Molly Kinder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's metropolitan policy program. "It minimizes the interruption of people falling ill and needing time off or medical attention."

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