Should Restaurant Owners Require Staff to Get Vaccinated?

A COVID-19 vaccine, administered in late January. Photo: Chet Strange/AFP via Getty Images

Yesterday, several outlets, including the New York Times and Eater NY, reported that a Brooklyn waitress was fired from her job at Red Hook Tavern after she hesitated to get vaccinated. The restaurant had stipulated that its employees must get vaccinated, but Bonnie Jacobsen, the server, asked for more time to research how the vaccine would affect fertility. Speaking with the Times, she said, “I totally support the vaccine,” and that this one, specific concern was her only hang-up. Now, she is unemployed.

According to guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Red Hook Tavern’s policy is completely legal, as employers can have a qualification standard requiring that an employee “shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.” (There are, of course, exemptions, including disability and religious beliefs, which would need to be explored on a case-by-case basis.) Either way, according to the Times, Red Hook Tavern’s owner Billy Durney says they’ve revised policies to make it clearer how employees can pursue an exemption from vaccination.

In fact, businesses can require vaccination of not only employees but also, business writer Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in December, “in many cases, customers.” (Sorkin also argues that a mandate could be a “workplace benefit” making others more comfortable.) Also in December, NPR published an interview with Johnny Taylor Jr. of the Society for Human Resource Management who says, based on the EEOC’s guidance, “we’ll hear that more and more employers are seriously considering a mandate,” which he adds is typically “unheard of,” except in industries like health care.

However, many workers like Jacobsen have expressed some reluctance or unwillingness to get vaccinated, which is a problem if we want to actually end this pandemic. A number of restaurant workers I’ve spoken to have expressed hesitancy toward the vaccine, and business owners have also told me that they have employees who are hesitant or, as one person put it, “not onboard” with vaccination.

But even if vaccination requirements are allowed by law, they may create problems for owners. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “If a significant portion of the workforce refuses to comply, the employer will be put in the very difficult position of either adhering to the mandate and terminating all of these employees, or deviating from the mandate for certain employees” — which could lead to discrimination lawsuits. Employers may also feel an added emotional weight because of the dire state of the industry, and must take into account that if they fire an employee, they’ll be sending that person into a job market with a cripplingly high unemployment rate. (Those same employees have also likely been working fewer hours and making less money.)

Most of the abstaining employees have said that they simply want to be cautious — though one chef said she has no interest — and more recent polling shows that vaccine hesitancy is decreasing. Four owners who operate businesses in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx say they won’t force those employees to get vaccinated, and that they’ll instead continue talking to them. “I’m going to try to have a conversation, you know?” one says.

Should Restaurant Owners Require Staff to Get Vaccinated?