The Biden administration and some employers have not extended COVID-19 vaccine paid leave policies to parents helping kids get shots, which children's health advocates say could make it difficult for some of the most vulnerable to get vaccinated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week cleared Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 12 to 15, and the agency says at least 600,000 kids got a shot within the first week.
Unlike adults, most kids need help scheduling and getting to and from appointments. And some vaccine sites — including CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid— require an adult to accompany a teen to their COVID-19 vaccine appointment. But some caregivers do not have the option to take off work.
“I'm worried that if family medical leave is not available to parents to bring their kids, that they just may not be able to get vaccinated,” Averi Pakulis, vice president for early childhood and public health policy at First Focus on Children. “And who are those parents who don’t have any kind of paid time off? Those are going to be lower-income workers. So there’s a possibility for growing disparities in kids’ vaccination rates.”
The Biden administration used funds from the recent economic recovery law to help employees get the COVID-19 vaccine, by giving tax credits to small and medium-sized businesses to offset the cost of paid leave for workers to get vaccinated and recover from side effects. The federal benefit lasts through Sept. 30 but does not extend to parents helping kids get vaccinated.
First Focus, along with other advocacy groups, is lobbying the Biden administration to either extend family leave policies for COVID-19 vaccines or appropriate more funds to help businesses do so, but the White House, which would not comment about its plans, has not yet suggested it will change its policies.
Many companies said they don’t have plans to extend vaccine benefits to employees trying to vaccinate their kids.
Early in the COVID-19 vaccination campaign, Target provided its employees with generous benefits when it was their turn to get the vaccine — four hours of paid time off, free transportation to and from the site, and even on-location vaccination sites at some Target locations. But these benefits only apply to employees, not their kids, a company spokesperson said.
Some other companies are following the same road map.
A spokesperson for the Purchaser Business Group on Health, which represents large, private health care companies, said several of its members are not planning to alter paid time off policies for vaccinating children so far. The National Association of Manufacturers said its members provided paid time off for employees to get the vaccine, but the authorization of vaccines to kids is too recent for an updated policy.
However, while Amtrak has not updated its vaccine time off policy to help employees get their kids vaccinated, the rail service plans to hold on-site vaccine clinics that will be open to employees’ immediate families.
Multiple private corporations that provide generous benefits to employees seeking COVID-19 vaccines declined comment about whether they would extend those benefits to employees helping their kids get vaccines.
“You don't see many employers going that extra step and saying we'll give you the same time off to go get your child vaccinated. It just doesn't have a direct benefit to the employer,” said Dorit Reiss, a law professor at University of California, Hastings College of the Law who specializes in vaccines.
Barriers to vaccination
Parents with hourly jobs or lower-income workers who cannot easily take time off work could have a harder time getting their kids vaccinated compared to white-collar workers with generous benefits built into their jobs.
If it’s mainly low-income workers who are unable to bring their kids in for shots, that could worsen health care inequities, public health experts noted.
Black and Hispanic teens are at much higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19 than white teens, according to the COVKID Project. Between January 2020 and March 2021, 3.2 Hispanic and 3.6 Black teens died for every one white teen, ages 15 to 17, who died of the virus.
Kids and teens are less likely to die of COVID-19 than adults, but vaccinating kids can help children return to normal activities without virus-related interruptions, help slow community spread and halt the formation of new virus variants.
Pharmacies are among the main providers of COVID-19 vaccines for teenagers. Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid require all children under age 18 to be accompanied by an adult to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Walgreens makes an exception for kids ages 16 to 18 in South Carolina, due to state law.
Parental consent requirements vary state to state, but many states and cities require parents to sign off on vaccinating a child. For example, Virginia, New York state and Los Angeles County require a parent, guardian or responsible adult to accompany a child ages 12 to 15 to a vaccine appointment, unless the vaccine is distributed in a school setting.
Many states do not require in-person accompaniment, but require a parental signature or consent. Washington, D.C., allows kids over 11 to get a vaccine without parental consent, and kids 15 and over in Oregon can do the same.
The COVID-19 vaccine is currently only available to children 12 or older, but public health officials anticipate the vaccine will open to younger age groups later this year. Pfizer said it plans to apply for emergency authorization in September for kids ages 2 to 11.
Kelly Murphy, a maternal and child health policy expert with the Families USA advocacy group, suggested it would be beneficial for companies not only to offer time off for parents to take their kid to get vaccinated, but also time off to help their kids recover from vaccine side effects.
“These private companies could have a real opportunity to show leadership, too, right, and get out in front and do good things for parents and kids,” Murphy said.