Now 10 harrowing months into lives as “essential” employers with millions at work during a global pandemic, food retailing companies are developing an immunity to chaos.
They’ve absorbed shifting and at times conflicting health recommendations from federal and state authorities. Many have wrestled with mask regulations, testing, blowback over instituting and then withdrawing hazard pay, while fighting to be certain that when vaccines became available their workers would get priority access and their pharmacies would be authorized to administer them.
As these last steps slowly become a reality, some retailers are now moving to be sure their workers—designated in many states and municipalities as “1b” priority recipients—will take advantage, at least if they want to.
Dollar General and Instacart this week said they would offer paid time off (Dollar General) or a stipend for missed shifts (Instacart) meant to give their employees or contractors time away from their jobs to get vaccinated.
Goodlettsville, Tenn.-based Dollar General said it would provide front-line hourly employees a one-time payment equivalent of four hours of regular pay after receiving a completed COVID-19 vaccination. Salaried team members such as store managers will be provided with additional store labor hours to accommodate their time away from the store. The retailer said it was working on a similar arrangement for workers in its distribution centers and transportation teams.
“We do not want our employees to have to choose between receiving a vaccine or coming to work, so we are working to remove barriers,” the company said in a statement.
Instacart, the San Francisco-based online grocery platform, said this week it would offer a vaccine support stipend of $25 to its shift leads, in-shoppers and full-service shoppers, beginning Feb. 1. The stipend is intended to provide financial assistance to workers who take time from their shifts to get vaccinated.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union has also made calls for employers to provide a paid holiday for workers to receive vaccinations.
Although additional recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would allow for employers to require vaccinations of their workforce in most cases, Dollar General’s release this week made a point to say they would be voluntary.
“We understand the decision to receive the COVID-19 vaccination is a personal choice, and although we are encouraging employees to take it, we are not requiring them to do so,” the release said.
The Kroger Co.’s SVP of human resources, Tim Massa, also stopped short of saying Kroger would require workers to be vaccinated, according to a Cincinnati Enquirer article this week. “At this time, we’re strongly encouraging our shoppers and associates to get vaccinated,” he said.
Some of the reticence to requiring immediate vaccinations could be related to simple logistics—with millions of shots to administer and a slower-than-expected start to distributing them, there’s little argument for forcing the reluctant to the front of the lines. A phased or gradual rollout among workers in the same store may also better conform with interpretations of federal health guidelines, sources said. For example, federal authorities have recommended against groups of close co-workers getting vaccinated at the same time because the potential for those needing a day off or suffering adverse reaction could leave them short-staffed, said Jennifer Hatcher, chief public policy officer of the trade group FMI, speaking in an interview this week.
Hatcher emphasized FMI’s focus since the onset has been on helping its member companies navigate the various constituencies and government regulations throughout the pandemic and that it wasn’t taking nor recommending a particular stance on the question of companies requiring a vaccinated workforce, nor was it interpreting employment law.
The group is plenty busy creating templates distributed to member companies that could be printed on letterhead as a kind of identification for essential critical infrastructure workers, many of them don’t carry business cards, for example.
The industry, Hatcher mentioned, has “6 million people to keep healthy. That’s an extraordinary effort.”