More Hawaiʻi businesses are considering a vaccine mandate for their employees, but it’s still a mixed picture.
Gov. David Ige’s policy requiring state employees to be vaccinated or face regular testing went into effect on Monday, Aug. 16. Counties adopted the same policy with their workers, with Honolulu extending its vaccination compliance deadline for city employees.
On the same day the state’s policy went into effect, chef and restaurant owner Peter Merriman announced he’s implementing the same mandate at his restaurants.
But he’s not the only one.
“We have heard as far as with employee mandate on vaccination, some restaurants are requiring that for their staff,” said Sarah Nguyen, Hawaiʻi Restaurant Association board member.
Nguyen is also the owner of The Pizza Press in Pearl City. She says she has encouraged her staff to get vaccinated, but hasn’t required it.
“I’ve had conversations with our staff members, and we’re going to be about 90% vaccination. That gives me peace of mind,” she said.
The Pizza Press is one of the many local restaurants and businesses caught in a predicament — either adopt a similar policy to protect staff and customers, or face unintended consequences.
“For us restaurant owners and restaurateurs, we’re in the business of serving people. Employees and customers are a priority for us. We encourage keeping the infection rate down, so that we don’t face a shutdown. A shutdown would be detrimental,” said Nguyen.
The restaurant industry is still feeling the impacts of the pandemic — especially with state and county restrictions capping group and capacity sizes still in effect, and an array of other challenges.
According to Nguyen, a recent HRA survey showed restaurant owners are concerned that a vaccine requirement would worsen the staffing shortage being seen throughout the industry.
“There’s a fear of losing between 30% and 80% of their staff if a mandate was required,” she said.
But this isn’t just a concern in the restaurant industry.
The Chamber of Commerce Hawaiʻi hosted a webinar Wednesday to help address member concerns and answer their legal questions.
According to the organization’s president, Sherry Menor-McNamara, their survey showed 57% of members did not plan to implement a vaccine policy for employees.
“A few concerns include not knowing how to implement properly, taking a wait-and-see approach, possibly good workers or being exposed to legal issues,” she said.
On the webinar were partners from the firm Torkildson, Katz, Hetherington, Harris and Knorek — which specializes in labor law.
Jeff Harris says employees are protected under state and federal laws when it comes to disability and religious exemptions.
But businesses are can still face legal challenges when it comes to employees or customers getting sick.
“Your mode of operation would be the basis for someone else who gets sick — either a customer or an employee,” he said.
“The hard sell for a lot of plaintiff attorneys is going to causation. But they’re going to file a complaint, and they’re going to say my employee, or customer, got COVID because you allowed unvaccinated employees to serve.”
He says even if a jury decides in favor of a business, owners could still end up spending a lot of time and money contesting the case.
For now, the Hawaiʻi Restaurant Association is deferring a vaccine policy or guideline to its members. But Nguyen says the association will provide guidance if there is a sweeping change to overall indoor activities from the state.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the Chamber of Commerce’s survey found 57% of participants were considering or implemented a vaccine policy.