Small businesses can require vaccination but few in Chicago do

Curramba Colombian Food restaurant
Small business owner Helga Weis (right) talks with an employee inside the Curramba Colombian Food restaurant in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on March 5.(Jiang Li/MEDILL)

By Jiang Li
Medill Reports

When Hannah Zimmerman went back to work at the JuiceRx in Streeterville as a barista last November, she had to prove that she had tested negative for COVID-19. Since then, JuiceRx has been an “extremely busy” store, almost back to its pre-pandemic numbers, she said.

But so far, the juice bar isn’t requiring that Zimmerman, or its other employees, get the vaccine as a condition of continued employment, though the 25-year-old said she would be comfortable with such a mandate.

“I think it’s for the best for customers and everyone I work around,” she said. “It (would) make me feel safer in a safer environment.”

Chicago has made progress in delivering vaccinations, but food service workers don’t qualify for their vaccines until Phase 1C, which is estimated to start March 29, according to the city of Chicago.

“We are encouraging employees to get vaccinated, but it’s our understanding that not everyone is qualified to receive it,” said Megan Mateo, the marketing manager of JuiceRx. Even when they do qualify, though, Mateo said it won’t be a requirement of employment.

“We currently don’t offer health insurance for our employees, so it’s also dependent on their personal situation. So, we don’t feel comfortable requiring it,” she said.

Only 2% of U.S. businesses surveyed early this month were requiring employees to have proof of COVID-19 vaccination before physically coming to work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Business Pulse Survey. In Illinois, the percentage was an even smaller, 1.3% of businesses.

Health and social assistance businesses lead the way in requiring vaccination, followed by other services, a category that includes everything from nail and hair salons to auto repair shops, and accommodation and food service businesses.

A guideline released by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission late last year gave a detailed explanation of how employers should proceed and suggested that employers can require employees to receive one of the FDA-authorized COVID-19 vaccinations.

“Your employer can require it,” said employment attorney Neda Nozari. “But there are going to be some instances where maybe people have disabilities, or they have a religious exemption that might prevent them from wanting to get the vaccine, and obviously it’s everybody’s choice whether they get it or not.”

Chicago’s pandemic recovery means that more small businesses are contemplating reopening and bringing employees back. The number of daily cases in the city stood at 283 as of March 15, with a positivity rate of 2.9%, according to data from the city of Chicago. Mayor Lori Lightfoot loosened indoor dining restrictions to 50% capacity or 50 people, and extended closing time by two hours to 1 a.m. earlier this month.

As of March 15, about 18.7% of Chicagoans have received their first dose of vaccine, with 10.2% having their vaccine series completed, according to the Chicago Data Portal.

Without a government mandate, many small businesses are uncomfortable with requiring vaccinations in order for employees to physically return to work.

“The governments are not requiring people to get the vaccine,” said Helga Weis, the owner of Curramba Colombian Food in Humboldt Park. “So, I cannot say that you don’t have (to go to) work if you don’t get your vaccine. They have to take care of themselves.”

City Scents Floral & Home
Nima Manhas (left) and Gur Manhas pose for a portrait inside their business, City Scents Floral & Home, at Streeterville on March 9.(Jiang Li/MEDILL)

Gur Manhas, co-owner of City Scents Floral & Home, said he has been encouraging employees to get the vaccine.

“We check every day, and I’ve given them links to make sure they have access, so they know how to get it,” Manhas said. “One of the staff members is pregnant, and she wasn’t comfortable with it. The rest of them, they all want to. It’s just the matter of making sure that they have the resources.”

A small number of businesses in the city are either requiring vaccines or providing financial compensation to encourage employees to get the vaccine.

For example, Oriental Massage & Spa in Chinatown requires its employees to be vaccinated, and most massage therapist have been able to get the shots.

“Getting the proof of the vaccine is a guarantee for everyone, whether it’s for us or for the customers, especially (since) we need to have close contact with our customers while doing massage,” owner Michelle Qin said in Chinese.

Meanwhile, Nipsey’s Restaurant and Lounge in Chicago’s Burnside neighborhood is paying employees $150 to incentivize them to get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to a post on the restaurant’s Instagram account.

As Chicago continues to recover, employment attorney Nozari said more businesses and workers will confront expectations and requirements around the COVID-19 vaccine. Right now, though, she said there hasn’t been many disputes.

“I think as people get back to work and the employers are trying to navigate this thing, I think that these types of questions will come up more often,” Nozari said.

Jiang Li is a general assignment reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @JiangLiLily.