Charlie Broder remembers being in tears when his family's business eliminated the jobs of 150 people at Broders' Restaurants at the start of the pandemic.
Many came back when the restaurants, all at 50th Street and Penn Avenue in Minneapolis, reopened with carryout service. To restart dining service, Broder arranged for on-site vaccinations against the coronavirus, which helped 90% of workers get protection.
"The vaccine's reality is the reason why we can reopen safely and confidently for ourselves and our staff, as well as the guests," said Broder, who hopes indoor dining will resume within a few weeks. "This is hopefully, for us, going to be one of the last times that we have to reinvent ourselves."
With Gov. Tim Walz continuing to relax COVID-19 restrictions, businesses now are preparing for the return to work, and vaccinations are a key factor. While many such as Broders' are offering incentives and making it easy for people to get COVID shots, some businesses are mandating immunizations.
"We're in a tough crossroads right now," said Sharon Scharf, a vice president of Minneapolis-based CSDZ, which helps businesses mitigate the risk of lawsuits. "Who should get vaccinated, why should they and are you going to have a policy that anybody who doesn't get vaccinated is terminated from employment?"
While Walz's latest executive order made the timeline for reopening more clear, the way forward may not be. Business leaders must manage workers' rights and workplace safety at a time when large swaths of the public aren't sure whether they want the vaccine.
Research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that more than half of surveyed workers favored mandates because it would make workplaces safer. But that same survey found that 28% of workers still wouldn't get a shot, even if it meant losing their jobs.
Industries hardest hit by the pandemic, such as leisure, hospitality and spectator sports, won't fully rebound until the public health crisis is completely under control.
Federal law allows employers to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations so long as they also allow accommodations for employees with disabilities and bona fide religious objections, said Susan Ellingstad, a partner at Lockridge Grindal Nauen who specializes in workplace legal issues. Employers must be careful enforcing any mandate, however, so they don't inadvertently ask employees to disclose medical information, Ellingstad said.
The first step is to survey employees about the idea of a mandate, she said, and simply offer incentives if a requirement would be widely unpopular.
In Minnesota, state-imposed capacity limits will end on May 28, with masks still required indoors. A statewide mask mandate will lift by July 1, or as soon as 70% of Minnesotans 16 and older get vaccinated. Businesses and local jurisdictions may continue to require them.
Governments are promoting vaccines, but mandates would spark political fights. At a legislative hearing on vaccine passports in March, Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said, "It's important to be vaccinated, but it shouldn't be criteria for your participation in government or employment."
Leading business organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Farm Bureau Federation and National Manufacturers Association, are promoting employee vaccinations. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has worked with the state to help some of its members become eligible to host on-site vaccinations.
"I'm hearing a lot about incentives; no real consideration of mandates," said Doug Loon, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. "From a legal perspective, employers can require vaccinations, but it's been strongly encouraged as best practice to create an incentive to do it, versus a requirement. I think that would backfire on employers."
With customer traffic starting to pick up, Café Latte co-owner Bryce Quinn began offering cash bonuses to employees who bring in their COVID-19 vaccination cards. "We make it fun and present them with a crisp $100 bill," Quinn said. "Real money."
About half of the St. Paul restaurant's 120 workers have taken him up on it since May 3. He said no one will get fired for refusing.
Brianno's Deli Italia in Eagan gave $100 bonuses to employees — and a 10% discount to customers — if they showed their vaccination cards. Staff at the Boat Club and Vanilla Bean restaurants in Duluth and Two Harbors get $50 and a chance for a $250 grocery card with proof of vaccination.
Target Corp. began offering vaccines to more than 19,000 front-line workers in April at more than a dozen designated vaccination sites across the state. Workers were eligible for up to two hours of pay for each vaccine dose they received, as well as free Lyft rides to and from appointments. Target, downtown Minneapolis' largest employer with 8,500 employees, will bring headquarters workers back this fall.
Sleep Number will start bringing workers back to downtown Minneapolis headquarters in June. Thrivent, which has yet to fully occupy a new headquarters building completed during the pandemic, will bring workers back in July.
Wells Fargo, with about 7,000 employees in downtown Minneapolis, said vaccine availability will allow a "return to a more normal operating model" starting Sept. 6.
St. Paul-based Ecolab plans a voluntary return to the office starting June 7, limiting capacity to 20% of pre-pandemic norms on any given day in the early stages.
Thomson Reuters, with about 6,000 employees in Eagan, is "strongly encouraging our employees to be vaccinated as soon as they are able," a spokeswoman said. A phased return to the office began with a few hundred employees a few weeks ago.
The company is adopting a hybrid model for office-based jobs, with some work being performed remotely.
At Lockridge Grindal Nauen, attorneys have decided that mandating vaccination is the way to go, believing it will help bring the office back to life starting in July. Ellingstad said the idea has been popular among its 96 employees, most of whom will likely resume working in the office with some regularity by the fall.
"I do believe that it really does create a sense of comfort for people," she said. "Knowing that everybody sitting in that conference room is vaccinated … is important to everyone's peace of mind."
A mandate is not the approach being taken at Broders' Restaurants.
As vaccines started to become available, the company directed workers to online resources for finding shots and offered paid time off before offering employee immunization events as well.
"We want all of our employees to be vaccinated, but we also acknowledge people" are in different places, Broder said. "Whether you have a religious or health concern around that, who am I to tell you that your future economically is tied to that?"