The vaccination data are clear: Most people in the age groups likely to work in restaurants and similar businesses remain unvaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 80 percent of Americans aged 65 and older have received at least one vaccine dose. The rate drops to 57 percent among people between 50 and 64 and plummets to 28 percent among those ages 18 to 29. Since roughly a quarter of restaurant workers are historically younger than 35, a supermajority of the potential labor pool for restaurant workers remains unvaccinated. Other industries hit hard by the pandemic, such as hotels, also have much younger workforces than other sectors of the economy.
The workers in these sectors may be less likely to return to work because they would face a higher risk of contracting covid-19. These industries require face-to-face interactions with many people, but they are not likely to have protection against the disease and they aren’t likely to receive the vaccination soon due to current distribution rates. The United States is currently administering an average of 3 million doses a day, with many going toward second shots for the partially vaccinated. It will take weeks — perhaps even months — before majorities of the younger age groups will have received at least partial protection against the virus, even if vaccinations pick up when the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is reauthorized for distribution. That could dramatically inhibit economic recovery across the board.
This problem is likely compounded by the high levels of government support for unemployed workers. People on unemployment currently receive a supplemental federal payment of $300 a week on top of their normal state benefits regardless of their prior earnings. Given the relatively low earnings many restaurants and other service industry workers typically receive, they are likely to make as much or more by not working than they would if they returned to their jobs. That means they have little incentive to get back to work, which may even make them less likely to get vaccinated to begin with.
Should these forces persist, Congress is bound to face pressure to do something. Employers will howl if they are legally able to open but can’t find people to work. Others will balk at the notion of younger people not going back to work by choice, especially if their lives are being paid for by everyone else. It’s one thing to help someone in need; it’s another to finance someone’s extended summer vacation on the taxpayer’s dime.
There are a few things Congress should do before this predictable problem explodes. First, lawmakers should require that people receiving supplemental unemployment benefits receive preferential placement in vaccination queues. The most vulnerable Americans have already gotten their vaccines; now it’s time to prioritize economic recovery.
Congress could place some vaccine-related requirements on unemployed people, too. Someone who is on unemployment and refuses a vaccine for non-health-related reasons (some people can’t get vaccinated because of preexisting conditions) should lose half of their supplemental payments. A simple moral principle would be at work here: Americans will help people who can’t help themselves, but not those who neglect their social duties.
Lawmakers could also strengthen requirements that fully vaccinated unemployed people actively search for work to receive benefits. Again, the idea is that Americans are generous, but not fools. They will help people get over the rough times, but not sponge off goodwill. If this is too much for some members of Congress, perhaps they can include a provision allowing an unemployed person to keep receiving a portion of their supplemental benefits for a brief time if they go back to work.
The United States was right to help make people economically whole during this unprecedented pandemic. Now it’s time to get back to normal as fast as possible, which means pushing and pulling millions of Americans back to work. Congress should act now before the inevitable outrage forces its hand.