Inside a company’s struggle to get all its employees vaccinated

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Tiara Felix enjoys her job at an eyewear store in the Bronx, where she spends five days a week handling customer orders in a backroom lab, surrounded by colleagues who fit and cut eyeglass lenses.

But there is one thing that could push Ms. Félix, 31, to leave: a vaccination mandate.

“There is no choice,” she said. “I’ll have to stop.”

Ms Felix is ​​among six remaining unvaccinated employees at her company, Metro Optics Eyewear, who were unmoved by a month-long campaign by their bosses to persuade every employee to voluntarily get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Hurry up. Employers across the United States are now faced with the same question of whether to fire workers who refuse to be vaccinated, a dilemma that takes on a new urgency as the rapidly spreading Delta variant leads to an increase. hospitalizations among the unvaccinated and threatens to block the economy’s recovery.

This week, New York City became the first U.S. city to announce a vaccination requirement for workers and customers in a variety of indoor locations, including restaurants, gyms and theaters. In New York City, 66% of adults have been fully immunized.

The new rules followed weeks of pressure from city leaders on private companies to impose vaccines or frequent testing as a condition of employment. A growing number of companies, including Facebook, Microsoft, and fitness channel Equinox, have announced that employees need to be vaccinated to return to the office.

But the problem can be especially complicated for the many small businesses that provide jobs for more than three million people in New York City, or about half of the city’s workforce.

They often employ low-income workers, who polls have shown are less likely to get vaccinated due to a range of factors, including mistrust of public health officials, limited access at vaccination sites and reduced ability to take time off work. Losing even a single employee by demanding vaccinations can have a disproportionate impact, especially in the summer when signs of asking for help have dotted restaurants, convenience stores and lounges across the city.

At Metro Optics Eyewear, which has four stores in the Bronx, where the vaccination rate is the lowest in New York City, it was difficult to persuade 90% of employees to get vaccinated.

Most of the company’s 58 employees live in the Bronx, where the company has offered eye exams and sold eyeglasses for four decades. Fifty-eight percent of adults in the borough are fully vaccinated, compared to 75 percent of adults in Manhattan.

John Bonizio, 63, owner of Metro Optics, was elated when he learned in January that optometrists and their staff would be among the first groups eligible for the vaccine. In the chaotic first days of the deployment, Mr Bonizio found a hospital with many appointments for vaccines available and offered to schedule them for each employee.

About half of the staff rushed to take a photo. But because his employees interact with dozens of patients and clients every day, he wanted everyone to be vaccinated.

When he called employees to ask them why they were reluctant, their responses pointed to the resistance that would unfold across the country in the months to come.

Some people said they did not trust the government, citing false conspiracy theories that the vaccines contained tracking microchips planted by authorities. Others noted that the vaccines had not yet been officially approved by the Food and Drug Administration and feared the vaccination would interfere with their ability to have children. (Scientists have said there is no evidence that vaccines affect fertility or pregnancy.)

An employee said she was worried because she believed a vaccine had turned the characters in the movie “I Am Legend” into zombies. People opposed to vaccines have widely disseminated this claim about the film’s plot on social media. But the plague that turned people into zombies in the movie was caused by a genetically reprogrammed virus, not a vaccine.

Talking to employees about the disinformation they saw spreading on social media was like walking on eggshells, said Brett Schumacher, 38, the company’s chief executive. Trying to persuade a skeptical coworker to trust government and health officials in the middle of the workday can be awkward.

“We have a person who is just anti-vax, period,” Mr. Schumacher said. “I didn’t go into all of the reasons behind it because that stuff just makes my blood boil.”

Mr Bonizio considered firing employees who refused vaccines, but said he felt uncomfortable telling employees to “get an injection they are opposed to or they can’t work or feed. their family “. He was also not sure of the legal implications of such a decision.

CNN said Thursday it fired three employees for going to the office without being vaccinated, one of the earliest known examples of a large U.S. company sacking workers for ignoring a workplace vaccination warrant .

The Federal Commission for Equal Employment Opportunities published guidelines in May however, employers were allowed to require vaccines for employees who physically enter the workplace. The agency also said employers administering vaccines could not offer “coercive” incentives to get the vaccine, but did not explain specifically what it prohibited.

Mr Bonizio said it should be up to the government to demand vaccines, not private companies.

“We have to do an about-face and impose vaccines because the government is afraid to do it?” ” he said. “What happens if we are sued? Will they protect us?

The tight-knit work culture at Metro Optics also made management think about the vaccine requirement. Some employees have worked in the company for decades. At a year-long corporate Christmas party, Mr. Bonizio sang a version of “Mambo No. 5” with each employee’s name in it. When his stores temporarily closed during the pandemic, he kept all staff on the payroll.

So instead of a tenure, he and his managers tried persuasion and inducements.

“You have to be careful how you present it,” said Denise Fitzpatrick, 51, store manager. “You can’t just tell them they have to get it, because then they’ll say, ‘Who are you to tell me? “”

The bosses shared light selfies after receiving the vaccine and reiterated that there were no lingering side effects. They presented vaccination as a way to protect the health of their colleagues. The company organized carpools to transport employees to vaccination appointments. Employees who got vaccinated early received bonuses of $ 1,000.

It still wasn’t enough.

Mr Bonizio said his efforts had also been thwarted by confusing rules regarding access to vaccines in the city. After an employee queued for a date at Yankee Stadium, she was told she couldn’t get the shot there because she didn’t live in the Bronx. A week later, she contracted the virus.

In March, Metro Optics announced a new requirement. Anyone who is not yet vaccinated should undergo weekly tests for Covid-19.

The requirement turned out to be complicated enough that it prompted another wave of employees to be vaccinated, leaving only a handful of refractories.

Controlling the weekly tests has now become the biggest challenge. An employee told Mr. Bonizio that she had been tested but that the results would be delayed. He later found out that she had lied to him, he said.

Employees who refuse to be tested are sent home. A saleswoman recently resigned from her post after officials sent her home for failing to submit a test for weeks.

“If you impose testing, you had better have a system in place to monitor that because people will find the holes,” Bonizio said.

Months of coaxing failed to sway Ms Felix, the lab worker, who said her bosses always told her to get the shot “whenever they got the chance.”

She spent the pandemic selling clothes she designed on Instagram before a family friend recruited her to join Metro Optics earlier this year.

She finds frequent testing a nuisance, but said she preferred it to a vaccination warrant. Ms Felix, who lives in the Bronx, said the only vaccinated member of her family is her grandmother. She described the city’s latest move to donate $ 100 to anyone vaccinated as “desperate,” saying it made her even more skeptical.

On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said new vaccinations were up 40% over the past week from the first week of July, an increase he attributed to the recent mandate announcement and the $ 100 incentive.

“How are you going to impose something on us that isn’t even approved by the FDA?” »Said Mme Félix.

The agency has cleared the vaccines for emergency use, and Pfizer could receive full approval for its vaccine as early as next month.

“It’s our choice,” added Felix. “I don’t want any foreign object or vaccine in my body that they’re not even sure what it is.”

Metro Optics has decided to require that all new full-time employees be vaccinated.

But Mr Bonizio, who faces a shortage of optometrists, recently interviewed someone who said they didn’t want the vaccine. He discusses testing her part-time.



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