After nearly a year of a pandemic decimating New York’s restaurant industry, forcing thousands of businesses to shut down permanently and costing tens of thousands of people their jobs, this month has brought a glimmer of light. optimism.
Limited indoor meals have resumed and restaurant workers, including waiters, cooks and those who deliver deliveries, have joined the growing list of New York State residents eligible to receive a Covid vaccine -19.
But at a Brooklyn restaurant, the changes sparked a clash between the owner and a waitress who was fired Monday after, she said, she resisted getting the shot for fear it could hurt her chances of get pregnant.
Over the weekend, the restaurant, the Red Hook Tavern, asked its employees for their shots, then fired waitress Bonnie Jacobson when she asked for time to study the vaccine’s possible effects on the fertility.
“I fully support the vaccine,” Ms. Jacobson, 34, said in an interview on Wednesday. She added, “If it wasn’t for that one thing, I probably would have it.”
The restaurant owner did not comment on Ms Jacobson’s case in particular, but said company policies had been revised to make it more clear to employees how they could apply for an exemption from getting the vaccine. .
Ms Jacobson’s experience comes as the restaurant industry, whose future is critical to New York’s recovery, struggles to weather the toll of the pandemic.
The dispute highlights the challenges employers face in the United States when trying to determine how to ensure their workers are vaccinated, including whether to make it mandatory or perhaps even offer incentives to do it.
In New York City, restaurant workers are among the first workers outside of healthcare to be eligible for vaccines. For restaurants, vaccinating workers is not only a way to protect their health, but also considered essential to attract suspicious customers. Elsewhere, some restaurant workers in California may become eligible for the vaccine in the next phase later this month.
The vaccines which were developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna and which are currently distributed have not been tested in pregnant women, but they have not shown any harmful effects in animal studies or have produced any evidence that they affect fertility.
Last month, the World Health Organization advised pregnant women to “not use” vaccines unless they are at high risk due to underlying health problems or potential exposure to the vaccine. 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 any specific risks that outweigh the benefits of vaccination. for pregnant women ”.
The owner of the Red Hook Tavern, Billy Durney, did not respond to questions about Ms Jacobson, but did suggest the issue could have been dealt with differently and that resulted in an immediate change in restaurant employee guidelines to request an exemption.
“Once New York State cleared catering workers to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to put a plan in place to keep our team safe and of our customers, ”Durney said in an email.
“No one has ever faced these challenges and we made a decision that we felt would best protect everyone,” he added. “And now we realize that we need to update our policy so that our team clearly understands how the process works and what we can do to support them.”
As vaccines began to become available in December, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces workplace discrimination laws, released guidelines stating that companies could require workers to be vaccinated. Yet, according to the commission, employers must provide “reasonable accommodation” to people with disabilities.
But in interviews, employment law attorneys said the Brooklyn case may be the first publicly known case of someone losing their job for hesitating about getting the shot.
“Employers are in a difficult position because on the one hand, they have a duty to protect their employees and customers, and the virus is a very clear and dangerous disease which often has fatal consequences,” said Lorie E. Almon , employee and worker. lawyer at the firm Seyfarth Shaw. “On the other hand, workers are understandably concerned about new vaccinations like this.”
Ms Almon added: “This is an issue that will come back as the vaccine becomes more widely available.”
Carolyn D. Richmond, a labor lawyer who advises the NYC Hospitality Alliance, an industry group that represents restaurants and bars in the city, said she believed it was too early in the vaccine rollout for companies dictate the requirements because injections were still difficult to obtain. .
“Pregnancy and the vaccine – as soon as you hear these words in the workplace, you should stop to think if what you are doing is right or wrong,” she says. “It has to be generally available to the employee population and it isn’t. Neither of us has difficulty getting appointments. “
Over the past year, Ms. Jacobson’s personal history has mirrored that of many New Yorkers. She entered 2020 with reasons for hope: a new job and a plan to start trying to have a child with her husband.
But with the pandemic surrounding the city, she lost her job in April at The Wing, a social club and coworking space for women with branches in New York and other cities. In August, she found a job as a waitress at the Red Hook Tavern.
Most weeks, Mrs. Jacobson worked part-time, taking the available shifts while the restaurant served customers away. Some days were busier than others, including a 1 p.m. shift on Sunday, Valentine’s Day.
During a shift a few days earlier, she had felt her phone vibrate with a message from the restaurant management that she had only read later that evening. Getting vaccinated would be mandatory, he said.
Ms Jacobson responded on Monday morning, reiterating her desire to learn more about the vaccine’s possible impact on fertility. Management’s response, which it provided to a reporter, was terse: “At that point your employment will be terminated. We are sad to see you go. If you change your mind, please let us know. “
On Wednesday, Mrs. Jacobson was anxious not to think about what had happened. She spent the day having lunch outdoors with her husband and visiting the Brooklyn Museum.
“The restaurant business takes a lot from you and doesn’t give you much back,” she says. “It really brought that to the surface for me.”