Restaurants debate whether to require staff vaccinations

Chipotle and Cousins have already said “no,” but many chains are still deliberating.
Photograph: Shutterstock

With restaurant workers designated as one of the groups that should be next in line for the COVID-19 vaccine, their employers are contending with the question of whether to require the inoculations, as permitted by federal regulators last week.

At least two restaurant chains—Chipotle Mexican Grill and Cousins Subs—have already aired decisions to encourage rather than mandate the shots. Others told Restaurant Business that they are still deliberating over what their policy should be. Most did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

The National Restaurant Association has called for the cost of inoculations to be covered by the government but has not made a recommendation on whether vaccinations should be required. Neither have labor advocacy groups that represent restaurant workers, such as Fight for $14 and a Union.

The reticence of rank-and-file operators underscores the sensitivity of the matter. Vaccinations, like face masks, have become a symbol of government overreach in the eyes of many Americans. Surveys conducted during the summer consistently showed that about a third of the public planned to forego inoculations, for reasons that ranged from mistrust of the government to a conviction the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 was rushed into use without the usual safety checks.

The percentage of Americans opposed to being vaccinated against coronavirus has dropped in more recent days to 15%, according to an ABC News/Ipsis poll.

In addition to facing that resistance, restaurant employers are contending with the unknown. Never before has the industry been called upon to make a similar call, and the boundaries of what’s permissible under current regulations are not crystal-clear.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) attempted to allay some of the uncertainty by stating last week that a vaccination requirement would not violate the privacy provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That landmark measure prohibits employers from probing for an assessment of employees’ health. But the EEOC noted that a vaccine requirement would apply to all members of a staff, with no disclosure required as a condition of the shots being administered.

Brian Niccol, the CEO of Chipotle, noted during an appearance Tuesday on CNBC that the issue has merited considerable attention within the chain’s headquarters in Newport Beach, Calif.

“This is a topic we’ve been discussing a whole bunch,” said Niccol, adding that the matter was of special relevance to Chipotle because of its efforts to promote employee well-being. “As of right now, we’re not going to mandate it. We’re going to strongly encourage it.”

Part of that encouragement, he said, was a willingness to pick up any related costs.

Cousins, a Midwestern sandwich chain, indicated that it had concerns about intruding on what should be a personal decision and would not require inoculations.

”One key reason is that the company does not step into employee's medical rights and mandating a vaccine could cross that line,” a spokesperson said in an email to Restaurant Business.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a prioritized list on Sunday of what sectors of the population should be next up for receiving one of the two COVID vaccines that have been approved by federal regulators. Foodservice workers were designated as being one group down from the elderly and critical frontline workers such as postal employees and police officers, the population sectors currently receiving the shots.

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