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The Sunshine Economy

Vaccines And Vacancies: Navigating Pandemic Protocols In The Workplace

Florida Doctors Fact Focus
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Syringes are filled with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at a mobile vaccination site in Miami in May. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

The job market is strong in South Florida. Offices are reopening and COVID-19 vaccines are available. So what pandemic policies are companies putting in place?

The COVID-19 vaccine has helped turn around the fortunes of lots of businesses, especially those focused on tourism and hospitality in South Florida. But those same companies may not be requiring vaccines for their employees, even as business picks up and in some cases is better than before the pandemic.

"We make it known before somebody is hired that we need you in a mask and we need you vaccinated," said Todd Herbst, co-owner of Big Time Restaurants. Big Time runs 16 restaurants in Florida including Big City Tavern and Rocco’s Tacos.

"The situation there, though, is that it's based on the honor system."

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It is a similar practice for the cooks, bartenders, servers, hosts, bussers or managers working at 50 Eggs Hospitality Group restaurants.

"In all of our stores around the country, we still have our staff that are masked up," said John Kunkel, 50 Eggs founder and CEO. "We have removed any kind of plastic barriers. We are using real menus, or not defaulting to the QR codes. We have loosened. The thing that we've kept heightened and continue to do is some additional cleaning policies and procedures."

Kunkel's company operates restaurant concepts in states with very different responses to the pandemic — Florida and California — and in Singapore.

"We've had to deal with it so differently in every state. And quite frankly, Singapore has really dealt with it completely differently than than the rest of the U.S.," Kunkel said.

Diners eating in a Singapore restaurant can only eat together in groups up to five people and have to show proof they’re fully vaccinated. That would be considered illegal in Florida.

The state Legislature passed, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into effect, a law banning companies from requiring their customers be vaccinated. Norwegian Cruise Lines has sued over the ban.

Aviation and electronic components maker HEICO sent a letter to its employees encouraging, but not requiring vaccinations. One sentence in that letter read, "we don't want to see you die a slow and painful death on a ventilator," said co-President Victor Mendelson.

"We feel very strongly about this. People need to get vaccinated. They owe it to themselves. They owe it to their families and they owe it to their coworkers," Mendelson said.

The manufacturer offered workers, at one of its Florida subsidiaries, $100 to get their shots and had vaccinations available at its worksites for employees and family members. Before the letter and financial incentive, less than half of its workers had received the dose. That rose to two-thirds after the effort.

Mendelson said the company is looking into a strategy similar to the one taken by Delta Air Lines — charge non-vaccinated employees more for their health insurance premium.

"The way we're looking at this is at a bare minimum, the cost for unvaccinated people could be materially higher," he said. "We feel that it's going to drive up the cost potentially for all of our all of our people. We need to be able to reflect that and have a way to absorb those costs."

Company Size And Vaccinations

Most small companies do not require employees to be vaccinated. Less than 10% of those surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau have a vaccine policy for workers, as of the end of August. However, that has been growing throughout the summer. Less than 5% mandated the shots at the beginning of June.

The Florida data isn’t much different than those national numbers.

South Florida small companies have shown a little more interest in a vaccine policy. About one in nine require the shots for workers — a significant change from just one in about every 25 requiring the doses for employees around Memorial Day.

The hospitality industry overall is experiencing an increase in employers requiring workers show proof their vaccinated. It was almost 13% late last month — higher than the national average.

"There's absolutely a need for businesses to continue to do what businesses do at the same time, really realizing the moral, ethical, legal challenges, that something is far reaching and serious as this horrific pandemic has been," said Jay Starkman, CEO of human resources outsourcing company Engage PEO, based in Hollywood.

"There's a balancing act because at the same time as delta is raging across the country, there's also a labor shortage. Companies are worried that if they are to put forward a mandate that everybody needs to be vaccinated, then there would be some loss of employees that would be hard to backfill," Starkman said.

Supply And Demands

That's the worry from 50 Eggs' John Kunkel.

"It will limit an already stretched labor market," he said. "At this point, I always feel like we're all stealing from each other in the industry."

Mike McCann has had a tough time holding onto employees. He has five part-timers at Vacillate Wine Bar in Kendall.

"The larger restaurants are offering $1,000 or $800 signing bonuses to go over them. So I did lose waitresses," McCann said.

No industry has added as many jobs and as fast since the depth of the COVID-induced recession like the hotel and restaurant sector. In South Florida, there have been more than 100,000 jobs created between April 2020 and July of this year.

While health care — another industry in demand for workers — has added 17% more jobs in South Florida since the worst of the pandemic, hotels and restaurants have added 72% more jobs.

It’s an indication of just how many jobs were cut in March and April of 2020. And how quickly business has bounced back thanks in large part to vaccines.

Others also point to the additional federal government unemployment payments. Those ended earlier in Florida, in late June. About 50,000 more people joined the South Florida labor force in July compared to a month earlier. Some research has found ending the extra unemployment benefits earlier had a limited impact on pushing people back into the job market, while reducing household spending thanks to lower incomes.

There’s also what’s being called the "Great Reassessment" — people from all industries rethinking their relationship with work and their workplaces. In the restaurant business, does someone want to work the hours required? How about relying on tips for most of your income? And the necessary interaction with the public even as the pandemic continues?

South Florida restaurants experienced some of the first and fastest return of diners. In early January, when vaccines were still hard to come by and were limited mostly to senior citizens, restaurant dining nationwide was less than half what it was during the same time period in 2019 before the pandemic. But is was down only about 10% in Miami and Miami Beach.

By April, with the expansion and wide availability of the vaccine, restaurant dining was down only 20% from pre-COVID levels nationally. In South Florida restaurants were reporting better than pre-pandemic business — up 40% in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

"No matter what protocols or what relaxing of indoor and outdoor dining [restrictions], there is no one thing that we saw a surge of business more than with the vaccine coming onto the market," Kunkel said.

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.