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What the Olive Garden can teach us about the role of employers and vaccinations

March 10, 2021, 1:30 AM UTC
Worksheet-Olive Garden-Covid Vaccines
Darden Restaurants, which runs the Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, among others, was early in saying it would offer four hours of paid time off for employees to get vaccinated.
Phelan M. Ebenhack—AP Images

Nothing is more important than vaccines right now. No business can afford to sit on the sidelines, hoping governments get this rollout right. 

Because they haven’t. 

Thankfully, there’s a lot of blame to go around. The difficulty in booking a vaccine appointment basically holds up a mirror to myriad, accumulated, undealt-with problems of the global economy: digital divides, healthcare inequity, worker burnout, unfair wages, mistrust in institutions, ambiguity in immigration law and work status, and so much more. 

Those problems still await us on the other side of this crisis—if only we get there. 

Time is running out. New variants of COVID-19 are spreading, and states inexplicably are easing restrictions. Even educators report uneven vaccination rates. Then there’s the issue of those refusing to get vaccinated, a minority for now. We cannot give those on the fence any fodder (such as, “It’s really hard to get an appointment”) for moving into their camp. 

I speak from experience. For the last few months, my community-news startup has been assisting New Yorkers (and a stray Jerseyan, or 37 of them) book vaccine appointments. We were founded as a newsletter to get through the pandemic so these efforts felt very … on brand. They exploded over the last few weeks as needs grew and people asked for more than just an appointment: translation, documentation, transportation to vaccine sites. The ripple effect was tremendous: “Can you also help my friend/family/church/colleagues/restaurant?”

I kept looking around. “Are we sure nobody else is doing this?” But the system of services is just as fractured as the websites to book vaccine appointments. So we dove in, thanks to an army of volunteers. A tiny word-of-mouth effort mushroomed into about 1,500 people we’ve helped. 

As a longtime business reporter and more recent entrepreneur, I am struck that the private sector has not played a bigger role in getting us vaccinated. Based on what we are hearing from literally hundreds of workers, and interviews with business leaders, companies big and small can and must take several steps to help and hasten vaccine distribution. All of our livelihoods depend on this. Again, nothing is more important right now. 

Arm your staff with necessary documents

Governments are doling out vaccines in cohorts of age, health and occupation. The very first doses, for example, went to health-care workers. As you expand to professions such as drivers, waiters, bartenders, cashiers, proving that’s how you earn a living can be a challenge. As the number of public-facing categories qualify (think retail or security guards), your company needs to be thinking now about how to support your workers—proactively. We are decades behind on immigration reform, but showing proof of employment (use letterhead) for a worker paid cash would really go a long way. 

Good example: This GrubHub portal for drivers clearly states: “Grubhub provides drivers with pay statements each week and these can be used as your proof of occupation.”

Offer paid time off to get the vaccine

In our experience of booking hundreds of restaurant workers, one theme emerges: They can’t make the limited window of appointments match their schedules. Many toil multiple jobs, and the sector has been so battered that they fear approaching bosses with any request. Missing a shift is not just about losing goodwill but real wages. By giving paid time off, employers both signal the importance of getting vaccinated and allow workers to not stress over reduced income as a result. 

Good example: Darden Restaurants, which runs the Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, among others, was early in saying it would offer four hours of paid time off for employees to get vaccinated. “We recognize getting vaccinated is a personal decision that you alone can make,” CEO Gene Lee said. “While we will not require hourly team members to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, we strongly encourage you consider getting vaccinated.”

Dollar General struck a similar tone: “We do not want our employees to have to choose between receiving a vaccine or coming to work.”

Offer time off or flexibility for the second dose, maybe even the first

You’ve heard the stories of the newly inoculated getting the chills, a fever, exhaustion. Offer time off and understanding—and plan for this cushion in  employees’ vaccination schedule so it doesn’t disrupt your business. 

Good practice: The University of Rochester is offering one paid sick day to “help those who experience side effects and are unable to work after receiving their second dose.”

Pay for the vaccine

No one can be denied the vaccine based on an ability to pay. But the price is inconsistent depending where one gets the vaccine, by state, clinic or levels of insurance. Some sites charge an administration fee, for example. “Businesses must accelerate a vaccine uptick in any way they can,” said Jeanne Pinder, CEO and founder of ClearHealthCosts, a media company that aims to bring transparency to healthcare costs. 

Good practices: Instacart managers and shoppers in the U.S. and Canada will receive a $25 stipend to cover vaccine costs. In India, Infosys and Accenture have announced they are covering costs of vaccines for employees. 

Offer your IT department’s help

Booking a vaccine is hard. Even if your sector is not first in line or has a high number of qualified workers, I guarantee you that a portion of your workforce loses hours of their day navigating sites and hitting refresh to find appointments for parents, in-laws and other loved ones. Our volunteers use bots, Chrome extensions and multiple devices. The other day, the head of the information-technology division of a hotel called and asked if we could train him. He has the right attitude. You want people within your company to be well versed in the tech savvy needed to book appointments—for their own work force, for the loves ones of staff, for future customers. This is a skill; the more people in your company who have the ability to quickly book vaccines, the safer your workplace might be.

Three questions employers must ask

According to Pinder, they are: Will companies supply vaccines? Will they require vaccines. What’s their policy for returning to the workplace once someone is vaccinated? 

“How many people are declining vaccines in the healthcare environment and how do you deal with them?” she asked. “It’s a worrisome question as you look around the corner. What does that mean for all the rest of us who did get vaccinated?”

Embrace the vaccinated

I got an email from a child-care company the other day saying I could sort caregivers based on whether they had a vaccine. Having a vaccine is a marketable asset. Workers recognize this (we have a high number of unemployed on both sides of giving and getting help) and they see vaccine ubiquity as key to their own livelihoods. 

“Businesses have a big role to play in vaccinating the world,” said Ravi Kumar, president of Infosys. “Large employers can significantly help to build trust and ease the public hesitancy toward vaccine.”

Favoring the vaccinated in the Great Transition ahead (expansion hires or the resumption of business travel, for example) sends an important message and makes it less tenable for those refusing vaccines to rejoin the new post-pandemic economy.

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