Grocers were on the front lines of the pandemic – so why aren’t so many people getting vaccinated?


Since the start of the pandemic last year, nearly 500 retail and meat packaging workers have died from Covid-19, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International union. Yet many workers who have seen coworkers fall ill and even die during the height of the pandemic reject their employer’s pressure to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

From Walmart to meat giant Tyson Foods, a growing number of companies have rolled out vaccination mandates among company staff or all employees. But efforts to encourage workers to get vaccinated – and recent vaccination warrants – have caused disruptions and setbacks among workers, leading some companies not to require the vaccine for frontline staff.

“If McDonald’s needed the vaccine, I would look for a job elsewhere,” Ahl, department manager at a company-owned McDonald’s restaurant in Paynesville, Minnesota, told NBC News Kenya. McDonald’s announced in an internal memo in August that office workers will be required to show proof of vaccination before returning to work on October 11. However, the rule does not apply to restaurant staff. McDonald’s did not immediately respond to a request from NBC News for comment on its policy.

“It’s not something that I want to participate in and put into my body,” Ahl said.

Resistance to the vaccine and potential vaccine warrants comes nearly two years after a pandemic ravaged the retail and grocery industry. Due to their increased exposure to the public, the risk of death from the virus among food workers increased by 39% and by 18% among retail workers, compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to a study from the University of California at San Francisco published in January. The virus only increased the risk of death among non-essential workers by 11%.

Ahl, who has worked at McDonald’s for two years, said the company had posted signs in the break room encouraging workers to get vaccinated. A vaccine reminder also pops up every time an employee logs into computers, she said. The company hosted webinars and readings to educate workers about the vaccine, as well as four hours of paid time off to get the vaccine. Even though the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration on August 23, Ahl refuses to be vaccinated.

“Common sense tells me this vaccine hasn’t been out long enough to have a study or a history there,” she said, adding that a recent Facebook debate she had read suggested that the vaccine might contain the live virus. The vaccine does not contain any live virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Either way, “it doesn’t make me comfortable,” Ahl said.

Until recently, employers depended on cash incentives, bonuses, gift certificates and paid time off to overcome hesitation over the vaccine, said Devjani Mishra, a lawyer at Littler Mendelson, a global law firm. employment and labor law representing management. Kroger employees receive a bonus of $ 100 with proof of vaccination, and vaccinated Publix employees receive a $ 125 gift card. Walmart recently doubled its cash incentive to get the vaccine from $ 75 to $ 150. But the bonuses and gift cards offered by grocery and retail companies nationwide have only gone so far – and with full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, employers are considering more aggressive measures, Mishra said.

“It’s the little things that get things done without making it a job requirement,” she said. “But some employers who have tried these measures to increase the number of vaccinations have reached a point where they are no longer playing with the incentives and they are ready to make the call. [on a mandate.]”

About 63 percent of employers polled by the company in August said they still plan to continue promoting the vaccine. But nearly half of them also said they “strongly consider” a new vaccine mandate due to the increase in cases fueled by the delta variant.

As long as the vaccine is also available to all workers, private employers have the right to require vaccinations, except in Montana, which has prohibited private companies from requiring a vaccine as a condition of employment, Mishra said. Even with the law behind them, employers are balancing concerns about the degradation of the workplace culture with a tenure and potential loss of employees who could be ousted by such a policy, she said.

“If 50 percent or more of the workforce is unvaccinated, how do you tell those 50 percent ‘you have to go do something or you don’t have a job?’ She said. “There is no guarantee that you can replace them with someone in the community who is vaccinated.”

As workers debate whether to get vaccinated, unions representing workers in grocery, retail and food production have mostly remained silent on the issue of mandates. Anjali Cadambi, spokesperson for United for Respect, a nonprofit that focuses on workers’ rights, told NBC News that the group has not taken a position on vaccination mandates. Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union spokesperson Chelsea O’Connor declined to comment on NBC News. But union president Stuart Appelbaum told the New York Times this month that employers should negotiate all vaccine requirements with workers and expand pandemic benefits such as paid sick leave. UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in response to Tyson Foods’ recent vaccine tenure that the union will meet with the company to “ensure that the rights of these workers are protected and that this policy is implemented in an equitable manner ”.

Much of the skepticism about the vaccine stems from mistrust of the government and its potential impacts on the health of workers, as well as doubts about the pandemic itself, Appelbaum told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, before the FDA approved Pfizer’s Covid vaccine.

Spencer Dillenbeck, who worked at a Target store in San Diego for five years, told NBC News he was reluctantly given the vaccine so he could work without a mask for the few months the company lifted his tenure. mask. But he is still skeptical of widespread vaccinations because he believes the virus has become less threatening with death rates falling.

“I could see us doing [a vaccine mandate] if people were dying like crazy, ”said Dillenbeck, who said he turned to sources such as Joe Rogan’s podcast and Tim Pool’s YouTube channel for information on viruses, which have both have been criticized for spreading disinformation.

“It’s a real virus, but I don’t know if we should have a vaccine mandate. I will continue to live my life, ”said Dillenbeck.

Lawrence O. Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center, said that while there is a modern history of child immunization warrants, there have been few warrants. related to adults and no comparable vaccination requirement. set up by businesses, universities and government agencies.

“This is a radical change, but there is an urgent need to get the United States out of this pandemic,” he wrote in an emailed statement to NBC News.

Historically, vaccination warrants have been very effective, Gostin said. Childhood immunization warrants as a condition of schooling have increased rates across the country, and states that have eliminated religious and philosophical exemptions had even higher compliance rates, he said. After the Houston Methodist Hospital became the first company to require vaccination as a condition of employment, the company reported a 99% compliance rate. The Hawaii Department of Human Resources Development has reported that about 99% of the state’s 14,000 employees comply with the state’s new vaccine mandate.

While there is a “vocal minority” opposed to mandates, “vaccinations will become the norm and most resistance will disappear over time,” Gostin said.

A 61-year-old employee at a Home Depot in Phoenix, who asked to remain anonymous because she is not authorized to speak to the media, said she believes workers who interact with the public should be forced to stay away from the media. get vaccinated. Her opinion is largely driven by her experience of surviving Covid and losing her husband to the virus in December, shortly before the vaccine was made available to those at high risk.

“If he could have held on for six more weeks,” she said. “I don’t want anyone else to risk this.”

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