But state laws are a piecemeal approach, and worker protections or benefits largely depend on what employers give. Ifeoma Ajunwa, associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says employers operate like their own private governments, with free reign in how they run their businesses. Covid exposed “the limited power the government can exercise over employers,” Ajunwa explains. “The pandemic has really laid this bare, especially when it comes to covid-19 precautions or covid-19 operating procedures. “
This means that it is largely up to workers to research and understand their rights.
“If you are one of the 94% of private sector workers who are not unionized, you may not know there is a benefit,” says Justin Feldman, an epidemiologist at Harvard who wrote on covid-19 and the workplace. “And even if you know it exists, that doesn’t mean you can exercise it without retaliation.”
In a statement, the New York Department of Labor told me it had received “various complaints” about the violation of the covid-19 vaccination leave law and said it “was trying to collect unpaid wages or compensate those who have not been paid for the leave as needed.
But even laws that seem, on paper, to support workers could overlook those in the most precarious jobs. The New York Department of Labor said any worker denied immunization leave should file a complaint, but declined to say specifically whether so-called gig workers are covered. (Ajunwa in Chapel Hill says that because the law uses the word “employee,” it would not cover concert workers, who also do not have health insurance through their work.)
“A national emergency”
Public health experts point out that there isn’t just one foolproof tactic for getting people vaccinated. The government could create a series of paid days off for workers in different sectors to get vaccinated, but we’ll still need to combine that with other public health strategies like door-to-door, Feldman says.
Misconceptions about covid-19 also need to be addressed: Young workers may believe they are not susceptible to the severe effects of the disease, notes Feldman, especially if they have worked in person with minimal precautions all the way through. throughout the pandemic and did not get sick. It can be especially difficult to change your mind after hearing peers, the media, or commentators downplay the risk.
“We need to treat immunization of people as a national emergency, and that means not treating it as a failing individual,” he says. “We have to do a lot of different things at the same time and see what works. “
Rhea Boyd, a pediatrician in the San Francisco Bay Area, says people need more information before they can be convinced by incentives. she founded The conversation, in which black and Latino healthcare workers provide credible information about covid-19 vaccines to their communities.
“A major incentive is self-interest,” Boyd said in an email. “Once people have the science-based information they need, it makes the other ‘carrots’ more like the icing on the cake.”
What would it look like?
“We won’t know what is enough until everyone is vaccinated,” she said.
In the meantime, the level of protection for frontline workers in the workplace continues to depend on the evolution of public health recommendations, the policies of their employers, and the whims of clients who may choose whether or not to comply with safety measures.
And although public health officials have taken vaccination clinics to public parks, churches and June 15 celebrations in an attempt to change minds, workers are monitoring what their bosses say and do.
“Workers from all walks of life look to their employers for guidance on what to do,” Ajunwa says. “I think this indicates an oversized influence that employers have on the lives of employees in America.”
This story is part of Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.