- The Biden administration proposes that people in the U.S. can access the vaccine for free regardless of their immigration status, according to President-elect Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan details released Thursday.
- If enacted, this plan could have significant implications for restaurant employees, many of whom are undocumented workers. Undocumented workers make up 10% of the U.S. restaurant industry's labor force, and in urban markets like New York City and Los Angeles, they make up as much as 40% of the pool.
- Biden's assertion that people in the U.S. can be vaccinated for free would also benefit restaurant workers who do not have health insurance through their employer. According to a 2019 Toast Survey, only 31% of restaurants said they offer medical insurance for their employees.
Despite these encouraging details, there is still a lot of confusion surrounding vaccine deployment for restaurant employees. Prioritization of restaurant employees as frontline workers varies by state, which impacts when they can be vaccinated. Restaurant workers in New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C., will be eligible to receive the vaccine in February, while Michigan restaurant workers will need to wait until at least May.
These disparate prioritization plans come despite recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to include foodservice workers in Phase 1c of the coronavirus vaccination distribution under the "other essential workers" designation. This would place restaurant workers in the third round of vaccinations, but only if the state follows the recommendations.
This patchwork of vaccine rollout dates could be challenging for large restaurant chains that have locations across the country. There is also debate within the restaurant industry centered on whether employers should require their workers to receive the vaccine. According to a Restaurant Business survey, 20.4% of operators plan to require their employees to get vaccinated, but more than 50% said they would make exceptions for health or religious concerns. Twenty percent also report that they will not create any vaccine policy for their employees.
It is legal for employers to require proof of the coronavirus vaccination, according to guidance released by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in December. But some restaurants are still uncomfortable with the idea of forcing their staff to taking the vaccine. Of the restaurants who reported in the Restaurant Business survey that they would not require vaccinations, 60% said it was because receiving the vaccine is a personal decision that employees should make on their own.
While many major chains and restaurant groups continue to mull their vaccine plans, Chipotle announced in late December that it would not mandate vaccinations but would strongly encourage it. CEO Brian Niccol also told CNBC that the company would pay for vaccine costs, an offer that would be unnecessary under the Biden administration's vaccine response plan.