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German supermarket offers bonus to vaccinated workers

Kristie Pladson
April 15, 2021

For months, employers in the US have used cash rewards to entice workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Now the trend has come to Germany, bringing legal and ethical questions with it.

A supermarket worker wearing a face mask
Supermarket employees are exposed to higher risks as they cannot avoid close contact with customersImage: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa/picture alliance

Financial bonuses for employees that get the COVID-19 vaccination have arrived on the scene in Germany, but the extra push to get employees back in the workplace could mean a legal headache down the road.

The Hamburg-based supermarket chain Edeka Nord will offer a €50 ($60) gift card for its stores as a bonus to employees that get vaccinated for COVID-19, the German retailer's website, lebensmittelzeitung.net, reported Wednesday.

Edeka Nord is the first major grocery chain in Germany to reward its employees for getting vaccinated. So far, the offer only applies to employees who belong to the second vaccination priority group, meaning those with chronic lung diseases, according to German news outlet t-online.de.

For months now, competitors Lidl and Aldi have offered a similar deal to their employees in the US. Since late January, Lidl has offered employees at its US stores $200 (€167) if they get vaccinated against COVID-19. The retailer, based in Baden-Württemberg, has over 125 stores located across nine states on the US East Coast.

Aldi offers employees the equivalent of two hours of pay for each dose of the vaccine and will cover any associated costs.

"ALDI is ensuring that all hourly workers who wish to receive the vaccine are able to do so without concern about losing pay or taking time away from work," the company said in a press release published in January.

A picture of the outside of an ALDI store in the US
ALDI in the United States is a branch of Germany's Aldi Süd and has more than 2,000 stores across 37 statesImage: DW/A. Cama

Other companies, including Starbucks, McDonald's and Aldi Nord daughter company Trader Joe's, are offering similar deals to employees working in the US.

Some 124 million people in the US — 37% of the population — have been partially or fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to the most recent figures from the US Center for Disease Control. In Germany, 14 million people, or 16% of the population, have received a vaccination, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute.

Is it legal?

National health authorities in both Germany and the US have recommended prioritizing vaccinating grocery store workers, though neither country requires these employees to get the jab. Offering financial incentives could encourage many employees to get vaccinated, but some say it would unfairly disadvantage people who choose not to. Germany, in particular, has along history of vaccine skepticism.

Barring a law that requires vaccination, employers in Germany cannot require their workforce to get vaccinated, international law firm Simmons & Simmons wrote on its website. Workplaces like hospitals and nursing homes are a possible exception.

According to US labor law, however, US employers can. Thus far, most seem wary of enforcing such a requirement, leaning instead on financial incentives to encourage their workforce to get vaccinated by choice.

"In principle, there is nothing wrong with such a vaccination bonus," DGB Rechtsschutz, the law firm of the German Trade Union Federation (DGB), said in a statement sent to DW. "It promotes a legitimate concern and puts employees in a better financial position overall."

However, the terms of such a payment would require approval by the company's works council, DGB Rechtsschutz said, pointing to a specific passage of German labor law. 

A supermarket chashier sitting behind a protective plexiglass pane
Retailers are obliged to protect their workers, but only vaccination can really reduce the risk of infection significantlyImage: Swen Pförtner/dpa/picture alliance

Second-class employees?

German law does allow for employers to treat vaccinated and unvaccinated employees differently — to a limited extent.

Employers are required by law to treat employees equally. But they are also required to consider the health of the employees and to not expose them to unnecessary physical danger.

In the context of a pandemic, the second requirement justifies a deviation from the first, Simmons & Simmons wrote. If employees have been working from home during the pandemic, vaccinated employees could be allowed an earlier return to working at the office, or they could be given privileged access to shared company spaces, the law firm said.

This could result in employees raising legal complaints that certain benefits are only available if an individual waives the right to not be vaccinated, the Jena-based lawyer Alexander von Chrzanowski told German magazine Focus Online. In defense, employers could argue they are encouraging a behavior that is in the interest of society and of health protection in the workplace. How the courts would decide is as of yet unclear, von Chrzanowski said.

Who else is in?

So will other retailers in Germany follow in Edeka Nord's footsteps?

Vaccinations are voluntary and employees must decide for themselves whether or not to be vaccinated, Christian Salmen, teamlead corporate communications at Aldi Nord, told DW. The retailer supports the federal government's information campaign regarding the vaccine and will keep employees informed of important developments in this area,

"We are also examining the possibilities of actively supporting the vaccination process — for example, through company physicians," he said.

Aldi Süd and Lidl did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Rewe Group told German news portal t-online.de that it was discussing the possibility of offering a vaccine bonus with its works council and that it was preparing to vaccinate employees once doses became available to the company.