In the face of flatlining vaccination rates, government, business, and public health leaders are trying all kinds of approaches. Sending Dr. Fauci door to door. Offering a pretty wild range of incentives: doughnuts, French fries, a gun, or a joint; tickets to sports games and museums. Holding vaccine lotteries promising the chance to win free college tuition or a million dollars.
The hoopla is probably helpful; given the high stakes, almost anything is worth trying. But in light of the widespread jobsite transmission of the virus, and Covid-19’s devastating impact on working people, we should also do everything possible to eliminate obstacles for essential workers. Fortunately, there are two non-flashy but surefire approaches to boost rates among the many workers who want the vaccine but haven’t had it: first, pass paid sick leave laws covering the shot as well as side effects; and second, turn to unions, worker organizations, and others that are already known to and trusted by workers and their communities.
To increase vaccination rates among essential workers, we need better laws concerning paid sick leave. Nearly half of adults in the United States who have not received a coronavirus vaccine are concerned about missing work as a result of side effects from the shot; this concern is even greater among Black and Latinx adults. Last year, around 25 percent of all private-sector workers (and a much greater number of the lowest-wage earners) had no paid sick leave. Laudably, some jurisdictions have passed laws requiring paid leave for the vaccine; for example, New York State requires employers to provide up to four hours of leave per shot for this purpose, and Chicago has similar rules, although limited to employers that mandate vaccines. These laws are a good start, but, to fully remove this barrier, workers need paid leave not just for the shot itself but also for side effects.
To boost vaccination rates, government also needs to reach a universe of people who are often difficult to reach. We’re not epidemiologists, but we have relevant experience in meeting this challenge: Between us, we’ve spent several decades enforcing labor laws in low-wage industries. Our jobs required us to reach low-wage and immigrant workers who put in grueling hours at precarious jobs; people who spoke little English, who often don’t know their legal rights, who may be undocumented, and who often have very real reasons to shy away from government contact.
We learned that the way to reach workers was through collaboration with groups that already routinely engage with low-income working people, such as unions, worker organizations, and trusted community groups. These groups brought cases to our offices, organized meetings, and trainings with workers, and helped us understand the challenges that workers faced in coming forward. They served as a highly effective and trusted bridge between government and worker communities.
Government-community partnerships can help overcome barriers workers face in getting the shot. For example, Latinos are the demographic group most willing to get Covid vaccines, and yet they have the lowest vaccination rates, based on concerns about cost as well as employment and immigration issues. One Kaiser study found that almost two-thirds of potentially undocumented Hispanic adults believe getting the vaccine could have adverse consequences on immigration status. Another found that Black and Hispanic adults are more likely than white adults to be concerned about having to pay out-of-pocket for the Covid-19 vaccine (even though it is free) or not being able to get the vaccine from a place they trust.
Confronting these challenges, many worker organizations, small and large, are already helping workers get vaccines as part of their ongoing work, because it’s central to serving their members. A worker group named Arise Chicago held member vaccine days, leading to vaccination of over 200 workers. Meanwhile, the powerhouse Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has run an extensive vaccination operation for months, including pop-up sites for members and their families, with materials in multiple languages clearly noting that no identification or insurance is needed. “It helps bridge the gap for folks who are really isolated from the regular systems of vaccinations, and who might be leery or nervous about going,” said SEIU’s Elizabeth Royal, senior manager of the SEIU National Nurse Alliance, who is leading the union’s national Covid-19 education and outreach program. “We know how to canvass…. we understand how to get out in the community and talk to people.”
In some cases, government agencies and worker organizations have already been collaborating to get people vaccinated. The County of Santa Clara, the United Farm Workers, the UFW Foundation, and Monterey Mushrooms helped 1,500 farmworkers in California access the Covid-19 vaccine in time for Cesar Chavez Day. In Philadelphia, the city worked with the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, which literally drove workers to vaccine sites, where city officials addressed concerns by providing information about paid sick leave laws. SEIU worked with FEMA to vaccinate over 15,000 Californians and partnered with the city of Houston to get the shot to janitors, as well as in other activities. Such efforts reach people that chain pharmacies do not; according to SEIU’s Royal, when pharmacies ask for insurance cards or identification, “people don’t know it’s their right to refuse and just say, I need the jab.”
Ideally, government agencies should fund community-based organizations for their work in this area, since providing vaccine education and outreach is critical to public health. In fact, the CDC Foundation recently issued a “Request for Proposals” to fund community-based organizations to increase vaccine confidence for adults in racial and/or ethnic populations experiencing disparities. Meanwhile, and at the local level, New York City’s Health Department announced that it will be granting $9 million to nonprofit organizations to provide outreach and education in 33 priority neighborhoods, to be used for door-to-door outreach, virtual trainings, and making appointments.
More state and local government agencies should create similar grant programs. But, with or without funding, community organizations that are already interwoven in community life and workers’ lives will be critical to getting essential workers vaccinated.
Our suggestions are not flashy. They’re not like winning a million dollars or opening the door to find Dr. Fauci on your front porch. But given all workers have experienced, they deserve targeted approaches focused on their specific situations. Adequate paid sick leave laws and collaboration with trusted worker organizations are commonsense solutions that will actually move the dial toward increasing vaccination rates of working people throughout the United States.