America’s service sector is so stingy with benefits that half its workers are unvaccinated

Michigan vaccine
In this Jan. 27, 2021, file photo, Yvonne Gibbs, 72, receives Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, at the TCF Center in Detroit. COVID-19 hit Detroit hard AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File
  • A Harvard survey of service sector workers found that half were unvaccinated as of early June.
  • Workers with access to time off for side effects were more likely to be vaccinated.
  • Female service workers, unlike their national counterparts, were less vaccinated and had less access to paid leave.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Just about half of Americans who work in service positions like restaurants, grocery stores, and retail weren’t vaccinated yet in June – and it’s due in part to not having paid leave to recover from the common side effects of the vaccine.

That’s according to a survey of almost 9,000 workers from March 2021 to May 2021 by Harvard’s Shift Project, an ongoing data collection and research project that focuses on retail and service-sector workers. Shift’s polling comes after service worker vaccination rates initially outpaced the rest of the country in May 2021.

One thing that ensured workers were more vaccinated: Support from their employers. Vaccination rates at companies that provide the vaccine, for instance, were almost 70% – but just 39% of workers who got no support were vaccinated.

Another compelling factor: Getting paid time off, with a vaccination rate of 63% for workers who got time off for side effects. The Shift data from May shows that workers with paid sick leave were 15% more likely to get vaccinated.

“The prospect of getting really sick from your second dose of the vaccine, which can happen, and having to take time away from work and missing out on hours and pay, it’s something that workers can’t afford to do in many instances,” Kristen Harknett, a professor of sociology at University of California, San Francisco, and one of the report’s authors, told Insider. She added: “There is a lot of material hardship that these workers routinely endure.”

Side effects are a main concern for unvaccinated workers

Of the unvaccinated workers surveyed by Shift, most cited fear of side effects as a reason for abstaining. For workers with paid leave, a difficult side effect might mean clocking some PTO and resting. But for hourly workers, it means losing income and not being able to show up to work.

“I think it’s something that more advantaged workers take for granted. If I spike a fever the day after I get my second vaccine,” Harknett said. “I know that I have the flexibility to shift my work or to take a paid day off. Most of these service sector workers don’t have that luxury.”

Child and eldercare is also a barrier

Prior research from Shift found that many service sector workers did not have access to paid leave, and half who had qualifying circumstances for leave – such as taking care of a new baby – still did not take any leave.

For instance, Shift found that the women surveyed were more concerned about side effects and were less likely to get vaccinated. That goes against emerging gender gap data on COVID-19 vaccinations, which finds that, nationally, women were much more vaccinated than men.

So why are women in the service sector less vaccinated than their male counterparts? The Shift report finds that the women surveyed were less likely to have access to paid leave, and may also have less access to childcare.

Indeed, polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation of 1,888 adults from June 8 through June 21 found that childcare could play a pivotal role in ensuring parents get the jab: 13% of unvaccinated parents said they would get vaccinated “if they were provided free childcare to get the vaccine and while they recover from side effects.”

The Washington Post’s Eli Rosenberg and Jeff Stein previously reported on the role that the lack of time off is playing in undermining vaccination efforts. One Los Angeles-based teacher’s assistant told The Post that, while she wanted to get vaccinated, she “never felt like she had the time or ability to do so with a full-time job and child care responsibilities at home.” She didn’t get the jab until the first day of her summer break in July.

Are you a worker without paid leave who has not been vaccinated yet? Get in touch with this reporter at [email protected]