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Can mandatory vaccinations bring back restaurant workers?

A waiter sets up tables in front of a restaurant in New York City.
Reuters/Carlo Allegri
Back at work.
  • Michelle Cheng
By Michelle Cheng

Reporter based in New York

Published Last updated

Against the backdrop of Delta-variant cases surging in the US, a growing number of restaurants are requiring proof of vaccinations against Covid-19. Danny Meyer, CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group and founder of Shake Shack, recently said he won’t hire workers or serve customers in his restaurants who aren’t vaccinated. Restaurants and bars across cities like San Francisco and Kansas City have also mandated vaccinations, as have food processors like Tyson Foods.

Companies who mandate vaccinations could attract more employees who want a safe workplace, according to labor economists. The fear of contracting Covid-19 remains a major factor keeping unemployed workers from not urgently seeking jobs, according to data from jobs site Indeed.

Some employers, who are gauging how workers will respond, could see this as a “selling point,” says Erica Groshen, an economist at Cornell. Workers may view it as a signal these companies care about their safety—and it could help retain them. For many essential workers, fears of Covid go beyond catching or spreading the virus: without guaranteed sick leave, they can’t afford to be out of work for extended periods of time.

It could also make hiring easier for some employers, as prospective workers may be more willing to take a job if they know everyone else on the job is vaccinated, says Nick Bunker, an economist at Indeed.

Essential workers not only face a higher risk of contracting Covid-19 but are more likely to die from it. To date, 482 frontline workers have died, and at least 96,600 frontline workers have been infected or exposed to Covid-19, according to data from United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), a labor union that represents about 1.3 million workers in the US and Canada.

But both economists say some employers will continue to hesitate over mandating vaccinations for employees or customers, out of fear it could lead to disputes, where, for instance, workers in customer-facing roles may be required to enforce customers’ behaviors. There’s also the worry that mandating vaccinations could drive workers or potential employees away, a greater concern in a tight labor market.

Trying not to repeat history

The restaurant industry was hit particularly hard by the pandemic, with thousands of small businesses shuttered when everyone was required to stay home. The industry continues to struggle finding workers, even with the undergoing economic recovery. For restaurants, the risks of the pandemic picking up again are very real. “I know if I were a restaurant owner, I think I would be saying, well, there is a chance that we are going to have another bad spell,” says Groshen.

Restaurants may be comfortable requiring vaccinations because thinking about health and safe working conditions for themselves and their customers is part of the business, Groshen says. They are “rated by health departments all the time,” she says.

At the same time, a sizable share of Americans support eating at places that require vaccinations. Nearly 40% of US adults “strongly support” indoor bars and restaurants asking for proof of vaccinations or a negative Covid-19 test before allowing people to enter the establishment, according to a YouGov America poll surveying 8,415 US adults July 27 and July 28.