Source: Restaurant Hospitality
As U.S. heads toward coronavirus vaccine approval, operators enter uncharted territory
With a COVID-19 vaccine expected to come online within weeks, restaurant operators are wrestling with whether to make vaccinations in the workplace mandatory or voluntary, which like most of the pandemic is uncharted territory.
A U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory committees will consider emergency-use authorization at meetings Dec. 10 on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and Dec. 17 on the Moderna Inc. vaccine. Coronavirus vaccinations began in the United Kingdom on Tuesday.
Groups are pressing to make sure foodservice workers, on the frontlines in many essential capacities, are among the first groups to be be allowed access to the COVID-19 vaccines.
The National Restaurant Association joined 14 other food-related trade groups in a Nov. 18 letter to President-elect Joe Biden that urged foodservice workers be considered for early vaccinations.
“Once a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed and approved for distribution, it is imperative that the federal government, led by your administration, prioritize our nation’s food, agriculture and retail workers for vaccination among other key population groups, to help keep workers healthy and to ensure that agricultural and food supply chains remain operating,” the letter stated.
“Our industries stand ready to partner with your administration to ensure a strong, coordinated public education campaign brings widespread and sustained acceptance of vaccinations among the public,” the groups said, echoing a letter to President Donald Trump in June.
Restaurant operators, who endeavored to create safe work environments for their employees, are considering how to approach the vaccines.
Sam Fox, founder of Fox Restaurant Concepts in Phoenix, said, “I would say we would encourage everyone to get vaccinated.”
In a recent interview, Fox said the company, which created such concepts as North Italia and Flower Child and is now a division of Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based Cheesecake Factory Inc., would have to think about whether to require the vaccinations for employment.
“I don’t know if we are ready to make that a mandate,” Fox said.
Federal agencies are still evaluating the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, which will be distributed under the auspices of the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed.
“We are committed to expediting the development of COVID-19 vaccines, but not at the expense of sound science and decision making,” said FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn and Peter Marks, director at the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, in a recent statement. “We will not jeopardize the public’s trust in our science-based, independent review of these or any vaccines. There’s too much at stake.”
Healthcare workers and the elderly, including those in shared-living environments like nursing homes and assisted-living centers, are identified as those in the first group for which the limited vaccines will be available.
“While the vaccine will not be available generally for citizens until 2021, employers are beginning the planning process as to what the vaccine’s availability will mean for them,” wrote attorney Zachary Flood of von Briesen & Roper on Monday in The National Law Review article entitled “Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination in Employment."
“At present, no law, regulation or other guidance directly addresses whether employers may require their employees to get a COVID-19 vaccination,” said Flood of the Milwaukee-based firm. “However, the concept of mandatory vaccination programs in employment is not an entirely novel issue.”
Many healthcare workers are required to receive certain vaccinations as a condition of their employment, the group noted, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have addressed mandatory flu vaccination policies in the past.
“The EEOC and OSHA have interpreted mandatory flu vaccinations previously as a permissible mandate by employers – with certain conditions,” Flood noted. Most of the permissions emerged from the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic.
“The EEOC emphasized that — even during a pandemic — employers are obligated to consider accommodation requests from employees whose disabilities or religious beliefs prevent them from getting a vaccination,” he said.
Besides noting medical or religious objections to vaccines, employers should “prepare and train their human resources personnel in fielding, responding to and documenting requests for accommodations, as well as how best to engage in the interactive process with employees who request accommodations,” Flood said.
“Employers should weigh the legal exposure and other risks associated with any mandatory vaccination program and assess whether the alternative of voluntary vaccination may be a better option based on the nature and needs of their businesses,” Flood said.