Restaurants need workers. Would an employee vaccine mandate bring them back?

Antonio Espinoza sanitizes tables at Casa Martin Authentic Mexican restaurant on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica on Tuesday May 4, 2021 .

Al Seib/Getty Images

As they struggle to rehire, owners are navigating whether to require, encourage, or reward staff Covid vaccinations.

Before implementing a Covid-19 vaccine mandate for employees at his 15 Chicago restaurants, Fifty/50 Restaurant Group co-founder Scott Weiner did his due diligence. He consulted a lawyer, discussed the idea with his staff, and developed a policy around the requirement. 

“I’ve been hearing for nine months across the industry and within my company that service industry employees don’t feel safe. One thing I can do at this point to make all employees and guests feel safe is require the vaccine,” Weiner said.

When he announced late last month that all Fifty/50 employees would be required to get vaccinated by July 15, something else happened. Applications to work at his restaurants tripled that weekend, a drastic reversal of the industry’s struggle to entice disenchanted workers back to hospitality jobs. 

Getting shots in the arms of industry staffers will undoubtedly make restaurants safer places to work. Returning the industry to something resembling its pre-pandemic scale, though, is dependent on a range of factors, many of which don’t necessarily hinge on overall vaccine rates. For example: how well owners meet worker demands for better pay and treatment; the efficacy of the vaccines against variants; and when and how state and local governments decide to ease or lift pandemic capacity restrictions.

Still, requiring, rewarding, or at least encouraging vaccinations for restaurant workers may seem like the obvious solution to keeping cases low, making indoor dining safer, and enticing employees back to what have become extremely dangerous workplaces—assuming such policies are implemented appropriately.

This is true for back-of-house workers in particular, whose mortality risk spiked 60 percent, the most of any job, during the pandemic, and who are more likely to be Black or Latino. The vaccine also lowers the risk for front-of-house workers, who make close contact with dozens of unmasked diners per shift; indoor dining in particular has been linked by the Centers for Disease Control to spikes in Covid cases. 

For workers who’ve chosen to return to hospitality—or been forced to because unemployment ran out or they weren’t eligible in the first place—the vaccine can function as a form of insurance.

Nick DeSimone had been collecting unemployment since last summer, when they and their coworkers at Philadelphia restaurant V Street organized for better working conditions, information on reopening plans, and accountability from the owners around longstanding behavior and workplace culture issues. Ownership shuttered the business in response. “I didn’t want to go back to work until I got vaccinated because I was scared, and because my Instagram was full of people going to parties and eating at restaurants and hanging out maskless,” they said. But when their pandemic unemployment insurance inexplicably stopped in April, they got a job as a line cook—a decision made a little easier because they were vaccinated.

“It’s this thing I have that makes me feel more comfortable at work,” DeSimone said. “Obviously I can’t control the behavior of everyone else. My coworkers are going to wear their masks wrong whether I like it or not.” In their view, the protection afforded by the vaccine can be a significant factor in getting staff back into restaurants.

As private employers, restaurant owners can require that staff get vaccinated, but the policy must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and include exceptions for medical issues and religious objections.

But as common-sense as a workplace vaccine mandate may seem, it comes with significant legal and ethical implications. As private employers, restaurant owners can require that staff get vaccinated, but the policy must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and include exceptions for medical issues and religious objections. Amy Carlin, who worked as a corporate trainer for restaurant chain Legal Sea Foods before becoming a partner and employment law attorney at Boston-based firm Morgan, Brown & Joy, notes that the FDA’s current Emergency Use Authorization of the vaccine is unprecedented, while vaccines that have gone through the full authorization process are routinely required to attend school, serve in the military, or hold certain jobs. An inflexible policy like the one that resulted in the firing of a Brooklyn bartender back in February could cause more problems than it solves. 

“I tell my clients that I think they’re okay from a legal perspective to have a mandatory vaccine policy, but do you really want to do that?” said Carlin. She typically recommends that clients encourage rather than mandate to minimize liability and support staff morale. 

There still remains an imbalance of power between management and staff, as well as the sensitivity of discussing medical issues and personal beliefs in the workplace. This reality has prompted owners like Genevieve Gergis, pastry chef and co-owner of Bestia and Bavel in Los Angeles, to encourage vaccines—even offering to sign staff up for appointments herself—but not require them. Most of the 65 staffers at each of her restaurants have been vaccinated, but there are a few holdouts. 

“Fear is not always rational,” Gergis said. “The point of trying to be a good boss is to see multiple points of view and find what works for everyone and have the majority of people feel safe.”

Whether an owner chooses to mandate, and whether staff need encouragement to vaccinate in the first place, may also depend on whether they’ve been able to keep Covid out of the workplace. For Andrea Reusing, chef and owner of Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the collective risk she and her staff faced coming to work—as well as some close calls—meant they agreed to get vaccinated as soon as possible

“The point of trying to be a good boss is to see multiple points of view and find what works for everyone and have the majority of people feel safe.”

—Genevieve Gergis, pastry chef and co-owner of Bestia and Bavel in Los Angeles

Despite solid pandemic protocols, a few exposures over the past year required closures for Lantern employees to quarantine and test, though no one on staff contracted the virus. “It was really important for everyone to stay healthy because everyone needed to pay their mortgage and rent, including us. It was almost like we all had to hold hands and trust each other to be able to get through the past year,” Reusing said. “By the time the vaccine was available, it was like, yes, of course, why not?”

Other restaurants are encouraging staff vaccination with incentives—an approach that some local and state governments are taking with the public as demand has dropped off. Washington, D.C.-area restaurant group Knead Hospitality and Design is offering its 400 staffers four hours of pay, or a day of PTO for salaried staff, once they’re fully vaccinated. 

“If you don’t want to get the vaccine, your job isn’t at risk, but we want you to stay healthy,” said co-founder Jason Berry. “We want to contribute to that mindset with cash.” With restaurant workers in the District eligible for shots as of mid-March, redemptions have begun trickling in. But he stopped short of mandating the vaccine for staff. “People need to make their own decisions about their own bodies,” he said.

As risky as restaurant work can be, some restaurant workers and owners are still wary of the vaccine; twelve percent of adults in a U.S. Census Bureau survey say they are definitely or probably not going to get vaccinated and another 7 percent saying they’re unsure as of April 26. 

Take New Orleans chef Octavio Ycaza, for example. After two decades in kitchens, Ycaza is now self-employed as a restaurant consultant. Having the privilege to control his work life means he’s comfortable waiting until he feels ready to get jabbed. 

“Just from my humble non-doctor experience, something done this fast can’t possibly be the best version of itself,” Ycaza said. “In my mind, there’s a possibility of side effects that haven’t even been considered in the rush we were in to make this.”

The restaurant workers of La Contenta in NYC pose in their masks in front of the restaurant. May 2021

Luis Arce Mota, chef-owner of La Contenta and La Contenta Oueste in New York City, contracted Covid-19 last year and encouraged his staff to sign up for the vaccine but didn’t make it mandatory.

Most restaurant workers don’t have the option to minimize their Covid exposure, but even for those most at risk, hesitancy can be a factor. For example, immigrants and undocumented workers, the latter of whom make up 10 percent of the restaurant industry’s workforce nationwide and up to 40 percent in some cities, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. But access issues, language barriers, distrust of government institutions, and misinformation mean that these populations may have lower vaccination rates than others.

For Luis Arce Mota, chef-owner of La Contenta and La Contenta Oueste in New York City, making sure workers were vaccinated was about more than routine workplace safety: He had contracted Covid-19 last year. Knowing firsthand how dangerous and terrifying the disease could be but wary of mandating, he strongly encouraged his staff to sign up. 

“It’s my responsibility to protect the staff. Having someone who doesn’t believe in it or doesn’t want to do it puts us in jeopardy,” he said. “Look at what happened in Mexico, what’s happening in India right now. How many people would like to have the opportunity to come here and get vaccinated?” 

But some of Mota’s kitchen workers speak indigenous Mexican languages and not much Spanish, so communication was challenging. “There was a lot of misinformation,” he said. “The vaccine isn’t good, it’s gonna cost you, they’re gonna put a chip in your body, you’re gonna grow horns.” He worked with a program through the city and the Mexican Consulate to bring in translators who could give workers accurate information and dispel fears in their native languages. Now, all but one, a teen who just became eligible for the vaccine, have gotten shots. 

Ensuring that customers aren’t bringing Covid into restaurants, though, may be a bigger challenge. While states like New York have implemented voluntary vaccine passports for businesses, some owners, like Gergis, would prefer not to act as gatekeepers. Reusing did say she might consider screening if a verifiable vaccine card or passport was available to her. (“Mine looks like a forged hall pass,” she said.) 

“There was a lot of misinformation. The vaccine isn’t good, it’s gonna cost you, they’re gonna put a chip in your body, you’re gonna grow horns.”

— Luis Arce Mota, chef-owner of La Contenta and La Contenta Oueste in New York City

Consumers’ comfort level with a return to business as usual will be highly individualized; some remain cautious about resuming pre-pandemic activities, while one poll found that 25 percent of the population doesn’t plan to get their shots—ever. 

Craig LaBan, longtime dining critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, hasn’t eaten inside a restaurant for more than a year, though he’s gone out for al fresco meals. “I’m eager to get back to normal, but I still feel this reluctance,” he said, due to the virus variants and current vaccination rates. “Personally, I would rather go somewhere where I know people have been vaccinated.” With several months of warm weather ahead, though, outdoor dining should help to ease the transition period for diners who are taking it slow.

But a not-insignificant portion of the population has been comfortable enough to dine out since reopenings were allowed, and that number has rapidly grown as more people get vaccinated and capacity restrictions loosen or lift. As of May 6, U.S. restaurants on reservation platform OpenTable were as close to 2019 booking levels as they’ve been since the pandemic started, only 17 percent below two years ago. So restaurant owners may need to worry less about courting customers and more about workers—and doing everything they can to create safe, equitable workplaces with supportive policies to win them back. 

“Being vaccinated will probably keep most of us from dying, which is great news, but this isn’t the end of the road,” said DeSimone, the line cook. “Managers and owners should still be doing what they can to be looking out for their employees and still taking precautions to protect them. For a lot of restaurant owners, it’s about how much money they can be making, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the comfort and safety of their employees. Because ultimately, the boss needs us. We don’t need the boss.”

Alexandra Jones is a writer based in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in publications like USA Today, Food & Wine, Civil Eats, Gastro Obscura, and Audubon.