When society seeks to influence behavior, is it better to pay people to act a certain way, or to penalize them if they don’t? The pandemic and the urgent need for COVID-19 vaccinations brings the question into focus.
American Airlines offers employees an extra day of paid vacation if they get the shots. Delta Airlines, on the other hand, warns employees they will be charged a $200 monthly penalty on their health plan if they don’t get jabbed.
Kroger, the nation’s largest supermarket chain, gives employees $100 for proof of vaccination. But professional basketball players employed by the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors learned recently they will not be allowed to play in home games this season if unvaccinated, and face possible fines or loss of pay.
A few companies are literally trying it both ways. Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, will require employees at its corporate offices to be vaccinated, while making it optional for in-store workers — but offering them $150 if they choose to get the shots.
Much as I applaud the intentions of businesses and governments that offer monetary inducements for getting the shots, I think it’s unwise. We don’t pay motorists to stop at red lights, we fine them if they don’t. Companies don’t give bonuses to employees who refrain from harassing coworkers, they discipline the offenders.
During the pandemic, government efforts to pay the unvaccinated have had only modest success. Ohio’s “Vax-a-Million” lottery was among the more effective programs, at least for a few weeks, but other state and local payoffs have not fared as well.
When it comes to encouraging COVID vaccinations, perhaps the ends justify almost any means. But since governments and businesses have the absolute right to require certain behavior — from paying taxes to wearing seat belts — there shouldn’t be a need for bribes, or for cowardice among lawmakers and employers. Make the rules and enforce the penalties.