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Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year, nearly 500 retail and meat packaging workers have died from Covid-19, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International. Yet many workers whose co-workers fell ill and even died at the height of the pandemic reject pressure from their employers to get vaccinated.

From Walmart to meat giant Tyson Foods, a growing number of companies have rolled out vaccination mandates for company staff or all employees. But efforts to encourage workers to get vaccinated – and recent vaccination warrants – have caused disruptions and pushbacks among workers, leading some companies not to require vaccinations for frontline staff.

“If McDonald’s needed the vaccine, I would look for a job elsewhere,” said Kenya Ahl, a service manager at a company-owned McDonald’s restaurant in Paynesville, Minnesota. McDonald’s announced in an internal memo this month that office workers will be required to show proof of vaccination before returning to work on October 11. However, the rule does not apply to restaurant staff. McDonald’s did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“It’s not something that I want to participate in and put into my body,” Ahl said.

Resistance to vaccinations and potential warrants remains nearly two years after a pandemic ravaged the retail and grocery industry. Due to their increased exposure to the public, the risk of death from the virus among food workers increased by 39% and by 18% among retail workers, compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to a study from the University of California at San Francisco published in January. . The virus has increased the risk of death among non-essential workers by 11%.

Ahl, who has worked at McDonald’s for two years, said the company had posted signs in the break room encouraging workers to get vaccinated. A vaccination reminder also pops up every time an employee logs into computers, she said. The company provided webinars and reading material to educate workers about vaccines, as well as four hours of paid time off to get vaccinated.

Even though the Food and Drug Administration fully approved the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on August 23, Ahl refuses to be vaccinated.

“Common sense tells me this vaccine hasn’t been released long enough to have a study or a history there,” she said, adding that a recent Facebook debate she had read suggested that the vaccine might contain the live virus. The vaccine does not contain any live virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Either way, “I don’t feel comfortable with it,” Ahl said.

Until recently, employers depended on cash incentives, bonuses, gift certificates and paid time off to overcome hesitation over vaccines, said Devjani Mishra, a lawyer at Littler Mendelson, a global law firm. employment and labor law representing management.

Kroger employees receive bonuses of $ 100 with proof of vaccination, and vaccinated Publix employees receive $ 125 gift cards. Walmart recently doubled its cash incentive from $ 75 to $ 150. But bonuses and gift cards have only gone so far – and with full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, employers are considering more aggressive measures, Mishra said.

“It’s the little things that get things done without making it a job requirement,” she said. “But some employers who have tried these measures to increase immunization numbers have reached a point where they are no longer playing with the incentives and they are ready to call” on the mandates.

About 63 percent of employers surveyed by the company in August said they plan to continue encouraging vaccinations. But nearly half also said they are “strongly” considering warrants because of the increase in cases fueled by the delta variant.

As long as vaccines are also available to all workers, private employers have the right to require vaccinations, except in Montana, which has prohibited private companies from requiring vaccination as a condition of employment, Mishra said. Even with the law behind them, employers are balancing concerns about the degradation of the workplace culture with the mandates and potential losses of employees who could be driven out by such policies, she said.

“If 50 percent or more of the workforce is unvaccinated, how do you tell those 50 percent, ‘You have to go do something or you don’t have a job?’ She said. “There is no guarantee that you can replace them with someone in the community who is vaccinated.”

As workers debate whether to get vaccinated, unions representing workers in grocery, retail and food production have mostly remained silent on the issue of mandates.

Anjali Cadambi, spokesperson for United for Respect, a nonprofit that focuses on workers’ rights, said the group had not taken a position. Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union spokesperson Chelsea O’Connor declined to comment; union president Stuart Appelbaum told the New York Times this month that employers should negotiate all requirements with workers and expand pandemic benefits, such as paid sick leave. United Food and Commercial Workers International president Marc Perrone said in response to Tyson Foods’ recent vaccination mandate that the union would meet with the company to “ensure that the rights of these workers are protected and that this policy is implemented in a fair manner ”.

Much of the skepticism stems from mistrust of the government and the potential impacts of vaccines on workers’ health, as well as doubts about the pandemic itself, Appelbaum told the Wall Street Journal this month, before the FDA approves Pfizer’s vaccine.

Spencer Dillenbeck, who worked at a Target store in San Diego for five years, said he reluctantly got vaccinated so he could work without a mask during the brief months the company lifted his mask mandate . But he is still skeptical of widespread vaccinations, saying he believes the virus has become less of a threat with death rates falling.

“I could see us doing [a vaccine mandate] if people were dying like crazy, ”said Dillenbeck, who said he turned for information on viruses to sources such as Joe Rogan’s podcast and Tim Pool’s YouTube channel, which have both have been criticized for spreading disinformation.

“It’s a real virus, but I don’t know if we should have a vaccine mandate. I will continue to live my life, ”said Dillenbeck.

Lawrence O. Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center, said that while there is a modern history of child immunization warrants, there have been few warrants. related to adults and no similar vaccination requirement. instituted by businesses, universities and government agencies.

“It’s a radical change, but there is an urgent need to get the United States out of this pandemic,” he wrote in an email.

Historically, vaccination warrants have been very effective, Gostin said. Mandates to vaccinate children as a condition of schooling have increased rates across the country, and states that have eliminated religious and philosophical exemptions had even higher compliance rates, he said.

After the Houston Methodist Hospital became the first company to require vaccination as a condition of employment, the company reported a 99% compliance rate. The Hawaii Department of Human Resources Development has reported that about 99 percent of the state’s 14,000 employees are in compliance with the state’s new mandate.

While “a vocal minority” oppose mandates, “vaccinations will become the norm and most resistance will disappear over time,” Gostin said.

A 61-year-old worker at a Home Depot in Phoenix, who asked to remain anonymous because she is not authorized to speak to the media, said workers who interact with the public should be required to be vaccinated. Her opinion is largely driven by her experience of surviving Covid-19 and the loss of her husband to the virus in December, shortly before vaccines were made available to those at high risk.

“If he could have held on for six more weeks,” she said. “I don’t want anyone else to risk this.”

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