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Chicago Will Fine Employers Who Retaliate Against Workers Who Take Time Off to Get Vaccinated

Will the action encourage more workers to get vaccinated?

United Airlines Employees Receive COVID-19 Vaccination At O’Hare Airport
About half of Chicago adults have received a single dose of a vaccine, according to the city.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

The city of Chicago on Wednesday adopted an anti-retaliation ordinance designed to protect workers who miss time on the job for a COVID-19 vaccination appointment. The ordinance prohibits workers from any adverse employer actions including being fired or seeing schedules maliciously adjusted.

The City Council’s actions come as restaurant owners develop their vaccine policies — some are considering making vaccines mandatory for employees. Restaurant and bar workers without pre-existing conditions have been eligible for shots since March 29. The Illinois Restaurant Association has been partnering with restaurants and health care providers to set up clinics so service industry workers could be vaccinated.

Employers would face $500 to $1,000 per violation of the ordinance, according to a news release from the city.

Many low-wage earners — where paid sick leave is a rarity — feel trapped in choosing between seeking health care and missing work. That was the reasoning provided by Loretto Hospital administrators in scheduling a vaccination event at the Trump Tower. They claimed they were vaccinating the tower’s hotel and restaurant staff. Critics viewed the effort as a hospital executive unfairly wielding clout to allow tower workers to jump the vaccine eligibility line. The scandal led to the resignation of the hospital’s chief financial and operating officer. Hospital officials said they arranged for the clinic because many of the tower’s workers lived near the hospital traveling from Austin back to work in River North in the middle of the day.

However, there haven’t been glaring examples or reports in Chicago where restaurant owners have retaliated against workers for pursuing a shot. Marz Community Brewing owner Ed Marszewski says he’s encouraged his workers at Kimski and at the taproom to get vaccinated ASAP: “If fact, we told people if you have an appointment for a vaccine, just close the damn business,” he says.

While Marszewski does not recall any instances of employers retaliating against workers for a vaccine appointment, he has spoken to some workers at other restaurants who are reluctant to get injected. Perhaps the ordinance is a way to encourage more service industry workers to get vaccinated. Of eligible adults, the city estimates about half of Chicago’s population has received at least one dose.

Further complicating matters are the concerns surrounding the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The association has had to postponed a vaccination event planned last week in Albany Park as the federal government has paused the administration of the J&J vaccine.

Association President & CEO Sam Toia says the organization is awaiting word to when the Johnson & Johnson shot will resume. In the meantime, they’ve planned a vaccine event next week in Rogers Park where they’ll likely use the two-dose Moderna shots. The Chicago Department of Public Health has allocated the association an initial supply of about 6,000 vaccinations for worker events, Toia says, and they’ll get more as supplies allow. Toia stresses that the association wants to ensure residents across the city — he mentioned South Shore, Bridgeport, and Humboldt Park — can receive shots if they want them.

“The super majority have no problems with giving time off to their teams,” Toia says. “We want all our team members to feel safe, then more customers will feel safe to come back to restaurants, safety is the No. 1 priority.”

The association is also working with various city council members who are hosting vaccine events in their wards. Aldermen have told the restaurant association to let workers know they can sign up at ward events and to market them via social media and other channels.

Scott Weiner, co-founder of the Fifty/50 Restaurant Group (Roots Pizza, Fifty/50, Utopian Tailgate), says he’s been focused on ensuring his Spanish-speaking workers are vaccinated. These workers face language barriers, and in some cases — upon request — he has filled out appointment forms.

“It’s good business at the end of the day,” Weiner says. “Customers are going to want to eat and drink at a place where staff is healthy.”

The city’s ordinance, according to a news release, is an extension of one adopted in 2020 that prevents retaliation to workers if an employee needs to stay at home because they’re sick with COVID-19.