The next side gig craze? Staying Covid-19 negative

Workers and students may earn extra cash, just for staying healthy

Jan 25, 2021 | Editorial | Budgeting | Jobs
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It pays to get pricked

The FDA’s emergency-use authorization of the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines had us seeing the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. But now the US is facing a new barrier to controlling the virus: frontline workers that are putting off or declining to get vaccinated altogether. In Michigan, an operator of six hospitals said close to 22% of its 33,000 employees refused a Covid-19 shot. Out of 5,900 workers employed by Jackson Health System in Miami, only half wanted a vaccine right away. And in NYC, at least 30% of healthcare workers said “pass” to the first round of inoculations. While guidelines from the federal government allow employers to require that workers get vaccinated (with a few exceptions), many employers are taking a different approach to speed the vaccine rollout: handing out cold hard cash.

You’ll attract more flies with honey than vinegar

That’s the thinking of many healthcare and long-term care providers, hoping to vaccinate as many employees as quickly as possible. Their reasoning is two-fold: vaccine mandates could land these companies in thorny legal battles, and employers in the long-term care sector want to avoid a wave of resignations from vaccine-wary workers. (Covid-19 has already deepened the shortage of certified nursing assistants.) PruittHealth — a Georgia-based operator of 100 nursing homes and assisted living facilities — has instead swapped honey for syrup, and is giving Waffle House gift cards to every worker who gets vaccinated. Houston Methodist hospital system in Texas is enticing its 26,000 employees with $500 vaccine bonuses. And Atlas Senior Living in the Southeast is offering four extra days of PTO to workers who roll up their sleeves.

What’s more, healthcare workers aren’t the only ones getting paid to get vaccinated. Instacart announced a $25 stipend for workers who get their shots starting in February. Trader Joe’s and Dollar General will compensate frontline hourly workers with up to four hours of pay to get the vaccine, or two hours per shot. Meanwhile, grocery stores, airlines, ride-share companies, and others are making their case before the Biden administration for priority vaccine access for their workers, reasoning that a vaccinated workforce will reassure health-conscious customers, act as a buoy for businesses, and ultimately help accelerate the US economic recovery at large.

Could cash keep college students healthy, too?

College campuses have been another thorn in the CDC’s side, with over 85 reporting upwards of 1,000 Covid-19 cases since March. But the way these institutions operate puts them in a unique position to help stop the spread. Many colleges already require students to get tested for Covid-19 regularly (once or twice a week), and more will roll out regular testing programs this semester. A recent economics study suggests schools should pay students $50 for tests that come back negative, reasoning that while college students know the hows and whys of staying healthy, unless they’re planning to see family, the lure of a Friday night party can outweigh their will to stay at home. Fifty bucks a week could be the short term incentive this age bracket needs to mask up and social distance. And the cash payments could actually save colleges money in the long run (because footing the bill for a major outbreak isn’t cheap).

Similar programs that pay participants to stay healthy already exist, and they work. Like ones that offer cash and prizes to adults fighting addiction and another that incentivized adults with diabetes to walk 10,000 steps per day. For a population that will do just about anything for free pizza, fifty bucks a week would be nothing to sneeze at.