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Olive Garden's parent sets a policy on employee vaccinations

Darden Restaurants will provide four hours of paid time for getting the anti-COVID shots, but will not require the inoculations.
Darden Restaurants vaccine
Photograph: Shutterstock

In what may be the first instance of a major restaurant company revealing its policy on vaccinating employees against COVID-19, the parent of Olive Garden informed its hourly workforce Tuesday that everyone will be provided with four hours of paid time to get the shots.

Darden Restaurants said in a memo from chairman and CEO Gene Lee that it will not require the inoculations. “We recognize getting vaccinated is a personal decision that you alone can make,” Lee wrote. But “while we will not require hourly team members to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, we strongly encourage you consider getting vaccinated.”

To encourage employees to roll up their sleeves, the casual-dining giant said it would provide two hours on the clock to get each of the two injections required with the vaccines currently available.  The memo advises workers to closely monitor information from state and local health authorities to determine when they may be eligible for the shots. 

Many restaurant operators are wrestling with what to do about COVID vaccinations.  OSHA has indicated that employers can require the inoculations without running afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the relevant legislation. But experts have warned that there are still enough uncertainties and exceptions to foster lawsuits.

Big employers in other industries have already said they’ll provide paid worktime for employees who opt for the vaccines. The Aldi supermarket chain has taken the additional step of offering to pay for any related expenses, such as the fee for visiting a doctor. Instacart, the grocery delivery operation, has revealed that it will provide a one-time payment of $25 to cover inoculations.

Restaurants have been in more of a wait-and-see mode. Many big restaurant companies contacted by Restaurant Business earlier in January said they either had not yet determined their policies or declined to comment. Those operations included McDonald’s, Outback Steakhouse parent Bloomin’ Brands, Buffalo Wild Wings franchisor Inspire Brands and Chili’s operator Brinker International.

In a survey conducted by RB, 20.4% of operators said they intend to mandate vaccines, though half of those say they’ll make exceptions on the basis of religion and health. An equal percentage said they will definitely not mandate the inoculations.

Another 20% said they’re still deciding, and 40% indicated they will definitely not require the vaccines.

Darden said the rate paid to employees for their four hours of vaccine time will be based on their earnings for the prior 13 weeks, up to a maximum of $20 an hour. Tips are factored into the calculation, according to Lee’s note.

Employees who haven’t worked in the last 13 weeks will be paid at a rate appropriate for their primary jobs.

In addition to Olive Garden, Darden owns and operates the LongHorn Steakhouse, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, The Capital Grille and Seasons 52 chains, among others.

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