Woman gives thumbs up after receiving COVID vaccine

What Increasing Vaccination Rates Mean for Small Business

7 min read • Aug 05, 2021 • Joe Kukura

The COVID-19 vaccine is now available for free to every American age 12 and up, but the vaccines are not saving the small business economy as we’d hoped. Yes, more than 67% of the eligible population now has at least one dose of the vaccine. But that means 33% of the eligible population is still unvaccinated, with a highly contagious delta variant unleashing another COVID-19 surge.

We know that rare breakthrough cases can happen, but vaccinated people are still far less likely to spread the disease, get sick, or require hospitalization. Still, even a fully vaccinated employee cannot work if they’re isolated with a breakthrough COVID-19 infection, and in this economy, workers are hard to replace. If employees are sidelined, there’s a good chance your small business will lose money because of it.

The economy is slowly returning to normal, but we’re at a crossroads where the public health situation could take a drastic turn for the worse. Here’s what your small business needs to consider at this unsure moment when both vaccination rates and infection rates are increasing at the same time. 

How Much Your Employees Face the Public

Certain types of workplaces are more likely to encounter COVID-19 outbreaks, and this also applies to breakthrough infections. A recent Eater LA report found that in late July, half of the largest workplace COVID outbreaks in Los Angeles County were at restaurants. Los Angeles airport was the top hot spot, with a bus terminal and a church also making the top 10. Even with Los Angeles County’s exceptional 75% vaccination rate, exposure to the general public means more exposure to COVID-19. 

If your business has a small team that works in one or just a couple of offices, it is easily possible to get everyone fully vaccinated. You may have even adapted with remote work to minimize workplace exposure to COVID-19.

But if your employees work directly with the general public, they are certainly going to face workplace exposure. Those workplaces should still consider requiring masks and might even want to provide employees with N95 masks, which medical research has found to be the most effective type of mask.

Employees can still get infected at home or when traveling, but the likelihood is far lower if they’re vaccinated. And the location of your business is also a big factor in your employees’ chances of catching COVID-19.

What Is the COVID-19 Transmission Rate in My Area?

COVID-19 infections are generally increasing across the country, even among the fully vaccinated, though doctors report that very few vaccinated people need to be hospitalized. But infections are increasing at different rates by state and city, so location plays a part in your business’s level of risk. 

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has an extremely useful and detailed COVID rate tracker by county, covering every single county in the US. If your county appears in red or orange, your business should be very cautious and contemplate hybrid work, staggered schedules, or the very contentious issue of vaccine or mask requirements.

Businesses Are Starting to Require Vaccination

The tide has shifted enormously in favor of vaccine requirements in recent weeks. The NFL shocked the sports world in late June when it announced that teams would be forced to forfeit games—and the players their paychecks— if games were canceled for COVID-19 outbreaks among unvaccinated players. The following week, California became the first state to require all of its state employees to be vaccinated, and a few days after that, President Biden enacted strict new vaccine requirements for all federal employees.

The vaccine requirement floodgates have opened in the private sector, too. Google and Facebook both just instituted vaccine requirements for their employees. Walmart added a vaccine requirement, too, though it only applies to corporate employees and traveling managers, not store employees, according to the New York Times. The Walt Disney Co. is in negotiations with its employee unions to iron out the details of vaccine requirements at their theme parks, as the country’s most recognized brand names embrace tightening their vaccination rules. 

Many of these government and company officials are claiming it’s not a “vaccine requirement” and use careful legal language emphasizing that employees can also provide a constant array of negative tests. But even that is still a requirement. Companies are keen to avoid loaded words like “vaccine requirement,” “vaccine mandate,” or “vaccine passport,” even when that is, in spirit, the method they are using to create the outcome of a fully vaccinated workforce and customer base.

How to Increase Your Employees’ Vaccination Rates 

Yes, you can legally require your customers to be fully vaccinated if they want to enter your business’s premises. In San Francisco, an alliance of 500 bar owners has been requiring proof of vaccination for indoor service, though still allowing patrons without such proof to dine or drink outdoors.

You can also require employees to be vaccinated, though there are exemptions that will vary by state. If you’d rather hand down a mandatory requirement, the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) has a set of tips on how to increase your employees’ vaccination rates that has these recommendations.

  • Cash or Gift Cards. They note a poll by the human resources consulting firm Mercer shows that 7% of employers surveyed have offered gift cards or cash. SHRM does not provide an average bonus, but their anecdotal reports found that the total “likely sits somewhere around $200 to $300.”
  • Offer Paid Time Off. That Mercer poll found more than half of employers were offering PTO for employees to get vaccinated. And remember, the federal government will give your business a tax credit for providing that paid time off.
  • Providing Vaccine Access. Some pharmacy chains and other third parties are offering mobile vaccine clinics for the workplace, something you may want to consider if you have a larger staff.

That poll from Mercer additionally showed that only 3% of businesses polled had mandated vaccinations. But the poll was conducted in late April and early May, so sentiments may have shifted toward vaccine requirements since then.

And at the rate the delta variant is spreading, we can expect to see more of that shift. Increasing vaccination rates mean small businesses can operate more normally—and with less fear—than they’ve been able to most of this past year. But businesses may not be able to passively expect things to get better and could use vaccination requirements or incentives to play a proactive role to help end the pandemic. 

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Joe Kukura

Joe Kukura is a San Francisco freelance writer whose work also appears in SF Weekly and SFist. He’s written financial advice for NerdWallet, tech industry analysis for the Daily Dot, sports content for NBC Bay Area, and good, old-fashioned clickbait for Thrillist.