Zippy’s Restaurants is poised to join a growing list of businesses offering employees an incentive to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. 

The popular Hawaii restaurant chain has plans to offer its workers digital tokens that could be redeemed for paid time off if they choose to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The company is also considering creating a marketplace of redemption items, possibly to include uniforms and street clothing featuring the Zippy’s logo.

Jason Higa, chief executive officer of Zippy’s parent company FCH Enterprises, said he won’t require the company’s 1,600 workers to get a shot in the arm, but he wants to encourage them to do so.

Zippy’s Restaurant located near Washington Middle School.
Zippy’s Restaurants is considering an employee incentive program to promote vaccine uptake. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Zippy’s is currently assessing whether any legal issues might arise from promoting vaccine uptake before deciding whether to formally launch the incentive program.

Zippy’s spokesman Kevin Yim said Wednesday that plans for the program had changed so that tokens for vaccination would not be instantly redeemable for bonus pay; rather, the tokens would help employees get closer to earning paid time off, similar to an airline travel rewards system. Employees can also earn tokens if they complete tasks such as watching a training video, the spokesman said.

Large national retailers including Dollar General, Target, Aldi and Trader Joe’s have also said in recent weeks that they will offer their front-line workers a bonus payment equivalent to four hours of pay in exchange for inoculation.

“As employers, I think we’re realizing we play a potential role in trying to support what we hope will be good decisions to help us come back from (the pandemic),” Higa told Civil Beat in a phone interview last week. We are definitely saying, ‘It’s your choice, it’s up to you — but please make sure you have all the info you need before you make your decision.’

The case can be made that vaccine incentive programs will help Hawaii return to normal. Only half of Hawaii residents polled in a survey funded by the state Health Department in December said they were likely to take the vaccine if it were immediately available. That percentage was even lower among women, young adults and people with lower income and education levels.

Other states, however, have shown that many people are changing their minds as the vaccine becomes more common and people haven’t suffered from mass side effects.

Late last year, the Food and Drug Administration authorized for emergency use the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which each require two doses a few weeks apart. Employers cannot mandate workers to get inoculated until the vaccines have received full approval from the FDA, according to Hawaii officials.

Thinking Ahead

In turn, the public has a critical choice in whether to contribute to the public health goal of achieving herd immunity through vaccination, something that can only happen if most residents roll up their sleeve for the COVID-19 vaccine. 

More than 12% of Hawaii residents have received at least the first dose of a vaccine, amounting to 276,603 administered doses as of Wednesday. But for now, the national vaccine shortage continues to hamper the state’s efforts to inoculate the vast majority of adults.

Many Zippy’s employees aren’t eligible to take the vaccine yet due to the state’s priority system, which gives precedence to first responders, health care workers, people 75 and older and some essential workers. But Zippy’s is thinking ahead, and many other employers are using this time to make decisions about whether to encourage vaccination when eligibility expands.

It’s unclear whether COVID-19 vaccine mandates will eventually be adopted widely by state governments and employers when it’s possible to do so.

Only 6% of employers said they plan to mandate vaccines, according to a January survey of more than 1,800 U.S. companies conducted by the employment and labor law firm Littler Mendelson.

The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission issued an advisory in January stating that employers who wish to make vaccinations mandatory will need to allow for medical and religious exemptions. The agency, however, did not provide employers with guidance on offering cash-for-vaccine programs to workers.

Elsewhere in the world, a small number of governing bodies are taking a stricter approach to the goal of ending the pandemic through inoculation.

In Indonesia, the government can impose fines and halt social assistance programs to people who refuse to get vaccinated. And at the Vatican, which functions as an absolute monarchy outside the Italian government, employees who spurn vaccination without a valid medical reason run the risk of being fired.

Pharmacist Davis Zheng assists with Moderna COVD-19 vaccine at Craigside Place elderly home. January 5, 2021
Emergency use authorizations for the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines prevent state governments and employers from mandating them until they receive complete approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Rather than payouts, the nonprofit health insurer Hawaii Medical Service Association provides up to four hours of paid leave for employees to get vaccinated. Allowing employees to get their shots on company time is intended to motivate more workers to do so, said HMSA spokeswoman Christine Hirasa. 

“We continue to encourage our employees and our members to get vaccinated when it’s their turn as we believe this is a critical step in fighting this pandemic,” Hirasa said. 

Beyond monetary incentives, Zippy’s has made other efforts toward boosting vaccine willingness among employees. The company recently recruited doctors from Kaiser Permanente to discuss vaccine effectiveness with workers and to clear up misconceptions.

“We’re realizing the significance of our role in providing information (about the COVID-19 vaccine),” Higa said. “What we find is so many of our employees are on social media platforms and that’s, for better or worse, where they get their information.”

The company also wants to incentivize employees to download the AlohaSafe Alert, a smartphone app that helps Hawaii residents discover whether they’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. 

Much like a news or weather notification, the app sends push alerts to the cellphones of any user who came in close contact — within 6 feet for a duration of at least 15 minutes — with another app user who tested positive for the virus. 

Zippy’s plans to allow employees to earn digital tokens if they download and activate the app on their personal devices since the app’s efficacy improves as usership grows.

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