Despite extensive in-person contact with customers, only half of U.S. employees working in the service industry were vaccinated for COVID-19 as of June 2021. Numerous factors have contributed to these low vaccination rates, including the lack of any paid time off for getting the shot or vaccine side effects, transportation to clinics and concern over the side effects of the vaccines.
The Shift Project set out to determine what barriers prevented service sector workers from getting vaccinated and interviewed nearly 9,000 employees from large firms from March through May 2021.
Many service sector employees do not receive paid time off or any form of sick leave. Thus, employees without this benefit could experience financial hardship if they needed to take time off due to side effects from the vaccine. In fact, 50 percent of service workers who participated in the Shift Project’s research said they were unable to make the appointment. And, many have physically demanding jobs that are difficult to complete when feeling ill.
Of all the respondents, 54 percent said they had paid sick leave, and vaccination rates were 15 percent higher in this subset.
Many employers offered incentives or support to workers to remove barriers to getting inoculated. For example, Trader Joe’s, Krogers, and American Airlines are among companies that offered small bonuses to employees. Other corporations, including Aldi, Olive Garden and McDonald’s offered paid time off for getting the vaccine. Target even gave employees free rides to vaccination clinics.
However, such incentives were far from universal, and many employers offered none at all. Of the respondents to the survey, only 41 percent said their employers offered an incentive or support. For companies that offered the vaccine, 68 percent of employees were vaccinated compared to 39 percent with no employer support.
It’s clear that smaller gestures, such as a bonus or a few hours off, can motivate employees to take the time they need to get inoculated. “Corporate action – or lack thereof – can make a significant difference, especially as it relates to issues of race and COVID-19 vaccine access,” TriplePundit’s Tina Casey said earlier this year.
The Shift Project survey examined several factors, including race and age. Not surprisingly, vaccination rates were nearly twice as high in employees over 70 compared to respondents ages 18 to 19. These findings follow a national trend where seniors are more concerned about the health impacts of the virus and are considered to be at a higher risk of severe infection.
Likewise, the study found that vaccination rates vary by race. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were the most likely to be vaccinated, at over 60 percent, followed by Whites at 47 percent, Hispanics at 46 percent, Blacks at 42 percent and Indigenous citizens below 30 percent.
The exact concerns vary by race, ethnicity and even location. For example, undocumented workers might be concerned about deportation, and ID requirements could have a disproportionate impact across various demographics. Some Black citizens might distrust the medical community due to past injustices and deceitful practices in the medical field - among them the The Tuskegee Study.
For many companies, it’s in their best interests for employees to get vaccinated because it could reduce absenteeism; to that end, some corporations are starting to require them. Cognizant of tight labor market, more companies with a wide range of sectors are implementing such mandates, such as Microsoft and Tyson. In addition, some companies, such as McDonald’s and Walmart, will require inoculation for office workers but not frontline employees.
Such policies are counterintuitive when considering that many service industry workers come in regular contact with the public, as well as workers employed at restaurants and bars. “Employees are most likely to accept vaccination mandates when there is strong evidence that they will protect the most vulnerable or have other clear business or public health benefits,” concluded the Harvard Business Review earlier this year.
Finally, employers must remember that they are responsible for ensuring worker safety. The science is out there, as Casey reminded us earlier this month. “Almost two years into the pandemic, the physical risk of COVID-19 transmission in retail stores and other indoor spaces is well understood,” she wrote.
But it’s not only companies that should step up to protect all workers. “Along with voluntary employer action, universal federal policies – such as paid time off to encourage vaccinations – have the potential to protect some of the country’s most vulnerable workers and the public’s health,” concluded the Shift Project’s researchers.
Co-written with Leon Kaye
Image credit: Melanie Lim via Unsplash
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.