After nearly a year of devastation caused by the pandemic in the New York restaurant industry, with thousands of businesses closed and tens of thousands of jobs lost, this month has brought a glimpse of optimism.
The limited reopening of restaurants for indoor dining has resumed, and restaurant workers, including waiters, kitchen staff and delivery men, have entered the list of those eligible to receive the Covid-19 vaccine.
But at a restaurant in Brooklyn, the change in rules caused a confrontation between the owner and a waitress, dismissed on Monday after refusing vaccination because she was concerned that getting vaccinated might reduce her chance of getting pregnant .
Over the weekend, the Red Hook Tavern restaurant required its employees to be vaccinated, and then fired the waitress, Bonnie Jacobson, when she asked for time to study the possible effects of the vaccine on fertility.
“I fully support the vaccine,” said Jacobson, 34, in an interview on Wednesday (17). She added: “If it weren’t for that one issue, I would probably take it.”
The restaurant owner declined to comment on Jacobson’s specific case, but said the company’s rules had been revised to make it clear to employees how they could seek an exemption from compulsory vaccination.
Jacobson’s experience comes at a time when the restaurant industry, whose future is critical to New York’s recovery, struggles to overcome the heavy negative effects of the pandemic.
The dispute highlights the challenges that U.S. employers are facing when trying to determine how they can ensure that their workers are vaccinated, including determining whether vaccination should be mandatory, or perhaps whether there should be any incentive for employees to receive the vaccine.
In New York, restaurant workers are among the first outside the healthcare industry to be eligible for vaccination. For restaurants, having vaccinated workers is not only a way to protect their health, but also a crucial way to attract customers back. In California, for example, restaurant workers may become eligible for vaccination in the next phase of the program, which begins later this month.
The vaccines that were developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna and are now being distributed have not been tested in pregnant women, but have not shown any harmful effects in animal studies, or have produced any indication that they affect fertility.
Last month, WHO (World Health Organization) advised pregnant women to “not use” vaccines unless they are at high risk because of underlying health conditions or potential exposure to the coronavirus. But the organization also said that “based on what we know about this type of vaccine, we have no specific reason to believe that there will be specific risks that could outweigh the benefits of vaccination for pregnant women.”
Red Hook Tavern owner Billy Durney did not answer questions about Jacobson, but hinted that the issue could have been handled differently and that it had already resulted in an immediate change in guidelines for employees on how to apply for a loan. exemption.
“As soon as the New York state government allowed restaurant workers to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, we felt that this was the perfect opportunity to create a plan to keep our staff and customers safe,” said Durney in email.
“Nobody has faced this kind of challenge before, and we made the decision that we believe would protect everyone better,” he added. “And now we understand that we have to update our standards so that it is clear to our team how the process works and what we can do to support workers.”
When vaccines began to be distributed in December, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, a federal agency that enforces laws to combat discrimination at work in the United States, issued rules stating that companies should require their employees to be vaccinated. But companies would have to offer “reasonable commitments” to people with disabilities.
In interviews, several labor lawyers said the Brooklyn case may have been the first example that came to the public attention of someone who lost his job because he hesitated to get the vaccine.
“Employers are in a difficult position because, on the one hand, they have a certain duty to protect their workers and customers, and the virus is a very clear and dangerous disease, which in many cases has fatal consequences,” said Lorie Almon, a labor lawyer. and union member of the Seyfarth Shaw office. “On the other hand, workers understandably feel concerns about new vaccines of this species.”
Almon added, “It is an issue that will come up again and again as the vaccine becomes more widely available.”
Carolyn Richmond, a labor lawyer who advises the NYC Hospitality Aliance, a sectoral organization that represents the city’s bars and restaurants, said she believed it was too early in the distribution of vaccines for companies to impose rules, since doses are still difficult to obtain.
“Pregnancy and vaccination – as soon as you hear those words in the workplace, you need to stop and think if what you are doing is right or wrong,” she said. “The vaccine needs to be widely available to the employee population, and it is not yet. None of us are able to schedule a vaccination easily ”.
On Wednesday, Jacobson wanted above all to get the event out of his head. She went out to lunch outside with her husband and visited the Brooklyn Museum.
“The restaurant industry demands a lot from you and doesn’t pay in the same way,” she said. “What happened really brought that up for me.”