How Restaurant Employers Can Tie COVID Vaccinations to Wellness Programs

After a rough 12 months for the restaurant industry, the pending eligibility of workers to get the   COVID-19 vaccination shines a brightening light toward the end of the tunnel. Under the CDC’s Phased Allocation of COVID-19 Vaccines plan, foodservice workers would be included in round 1C of the vaccination distribution rollout, along with workers in the transportation, construction, finance, IT and communications, energy, legal, public safety and media industries.  Employers can accomplish any number of positive goals by integrating a vaccination drive into their wellness programs. Not only will they increase engagement and boost vaccination uptake, but many guests will feel far more comfortable knowing that employee vaccination is supported.

Restaurant management must step carefully in proceeding, however, considering many regulations that come into play around workplace wellness program incentives. Here’s what employers need to know.

The incentive factor – a fit or not for restaurant wellness initiatives?

While quite a few employers are thinking about launching voluntary COVID vaccination programs, the incentives that some have offered – from cash and paid time off to gift cards – is a concern. It may boost participation, but there’s still not a lot of clarity over their legality for workplace wellness initiatives that offer large financial rewards.

Incentive limits are the issue. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) maintains that employees could feel coerced to participate if the incentive offered is too high, disclosing protected medical information in order to earn it. While proposed rules regarding wellness programs were released in January, they were frozen and are pending review in the wake of a new administration.

In the interim, employers should proceed cautiously, with an eye to minimizing risk in offering incentives – the more modest, the least amount of pressure is imposed for participation.  Lower risk strategies might include granting a set, paid amount of time off to get the vaccination itself, making that benefit available to all employees. There would be no tracking of who got the vaccination and no penalties for not receiving it.  Another lower risk path would be to offer inexpensive incentives like a water bottle or t-shirt to those who vaccinated.

Mandated or voluntary vaccination – it’s a sticky question.

While federal employment law does not bar a COVID-19 vaccination mandate (under an employer-sponsored program or an employment requirement), restaurants should think twice about their policy. Mandatory or voluntary, there’s a risk of triggering violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, along with protective state and local laws. If employees have cause for declining the COVID vaccination, it requires careful questioning of whether an underlying health condition (ADA) or a religious prohibition (Title VII) is behind it. Accommodations may be necessary.

Make the case for vaccination with valid, science-based information.

Disinformation has been rampant, making it key for employers to accompany their vaccination programs with information from credible sources. They should also work to validate employees’ concerns over the vaccine, rather than dismiss them.

Among the key points to be covered:

  • Employees need to understand the science behind the COVID vaccine. It doesn’t contain an active virus, nor does it alter one’s DNA. The vaccine “instructs” cells to make a harmless “spike protein” that fools the body into thinking “COVID was here,” so that it builds an immune response and makes antibodies in protection. (can we quote a source here?)
  • Set workers’ expectations of the vaccines. People can get the virus after the first shot. They are less likely to test positive but will have the coronavirus antibodies. Those who have gotten the virus after the first dose typically have had less severe symptoms. According to Johns Hopkins, the J&J vaccine is 66% effective while the Pfizer and Moderna shots are as high as 95% effective. The J&J vaccine appears to be even more effective against serious illness than it is against moderate COVID-19.
  • Having an allergic reaction usually stems from a pre-existing allergy to the ingredients in the vaccines. A checklist should be part of each vaccination protocol, used before each shot, to lessen the likelihood of an allergic reaction. 

As vaccinations ramp up, and the restaurant business increasingly opens, operators may want to share with their guests that employee vaccination is another safety measure that’s been added to the mix. As part of their general information about their COVID-19 protocols, that’s fine – but everyone should remember that confidentiality and privacy requirements mean sharing the status of individual workers is out of bounds.