But state laws are a piecemeal approach, and worker protections or benefits depend largely on what employers will provide. Ifeoma Ajunwa, an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says employers operate like their own private governments, with free rein on how they run their businesses. Covid exposed “the limited power that government can wield over employers,” says Ajunwa. “The pandemic really laid it out, especially in regards to covid-19 precautions or covid-19 operating procedures.”
That means it is highly up to workers to research and understand their rights.
“If you are part of the 94% of private sector workers who are not in a union, you may not know there is a benefit,” says Justin Feldman, a Harvard epidemiologist who has written about covid-19 and the workplace. “And even if you know it exists, it doesn’t mean you will be able to exercise it without retaliation.”
In a statement, the New York Department of Labor told me that it has received “several complaints” about the violation of the covid-19 vaccination leave law and says that it “attempts to collect unpaid wages or restitution for those who were not paid for free time as needed. ”
But even laws that appear on paper, to support workers, could neglect those in the most precarious jobs. The New York Department of Labor has said that any worker who is denied vaccination leave must file a complaint, but declined to say specifically whether so-called concert workers are covered. (Ajunwa in Chapel Hill says that because the law uses the word “employee,” it wouldn’t cover concert workers, who also don’t get health insurance through work.)
“A national emergency”
Public health experts emphasize that there is no foolproof tactic for vaccinating people. The government could create a series of paid days off for workers in different sectors to receive vaccines, but we would still have to combine that with other public health strategies, like going door-to-door, Feldman says.
Misconceptions about covid-19 also need to be addressed: Younger workers may believe they are not susceptible to the serious effects of the disease, Feldman notes, especially if they have already worked in person with minimal precautions during the pandemic and have not been sick. . It can be particularly difficult to change your mind after listening to your peers, the media, or commentators minimize the risk.
“We need to treat vaccinating people as a national emergency, and that means not treating it as an individual failure,” he says. “We need to do a lot of different things at the same time and see what works.”
Rhea Boyd, a San Francisco Bay Area pediatrician, says people need more information before incentives can persuade them. She established The conversation, in which Black and Latino healthcare workers deliver credible information about COVID-19 vaccines to their communities.
“An important incentive is personal interest,” Boyd said in an email. “Once people have the information they need, based on science, other ‘carrots’ are more like the icing on the cake.”
What would that look like?
“We will only know what is enough once everyone is vaccinated,” he says.
Meanwhile, the level of protection for frontline workers on the job continues to depend on changing public health recommendations, their employers’ own policies, and the whims of customers who may choose to comply with safety measures, or do not.
And while public health officials have taken vaccine clinics to public parks, churches and 19th-century celebrations in an attempt to change their minds, workers are listening to what their bosses say and do.
“Workers in all sectors get directions from their employers about what they should be doing,” says Ajunwa. “I think this points to a huge influence that employers have on the lives of employees in America.”
This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.