Bonnie Jacobson, a former server at William Durney’s wildly popular Red Hook Tavern in Brooklyn, claims that she was fired from the restaurant on February 15 after refusing to immediately get the COVID-19 vaccination, highlighting the challenges restaurants and hospitality workers are grappling with as they figure out the best path to vaccination.
Shortly after the state made restaurant workers eligible for the vaccine, Jacobson told NBC New York that her manager at Red Hook Tavern had first told her that getting the vaccine was optional but encouraged for its staff. The news was a relief to the Brooklyn resident, who tells Eater New York that while she’s not anti-vaccination, she’s currently holding off on getting vaccinated until more information becomes available on any potential effects that the vaccine may have on fertility and pregnancy.
Late last week, however, it appears that the restaurant changed course on its vaccination guidance. Red Hook Tavern’s director of operations Dori Ann Scagnelli said in an email on February 12 that vaccination would be required for all staffers, with few exceptions. “This will be mandatory for all existing employees and any new hires,” Scagnelli wrote in the email, which has been reviewed by Eater New York. “The exception to this policy will be if your own personal health or disability prohibits you from obtaining this vaccination.”
The following day, Jacobson sent an email, which was also reviewed by Eater New York, to Scagnelli outlining her concerns with receiving the vaccine right away. Jacobson and her husband have discussed trying to have a child, she says, and, after looking into the vaccine, she decided that there wasn’t enough data available yet to ensure that a COVID-19 vaccination wouldn’t have any effects on a pregnancy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently states that “based on how mRNA vaccines work, experts believe they are unlikely to pose a specific risk for people who are pregnant,” but the actual effects of the COVID-19 vaccination on people who are pregnant and their fetuses are still unknown because the vaccines “have not been studied in pregnant women.” The NYC Department of Health’s current guidance on COVID-19 vaccines states that “there is no evidence fertility problems are a side effect of COVID-19 vaccines, or of any other vaccines.”
After Jacobson explained her position to Scagnelli, Jacobson received another email on February 15, which has been reviewed by Eater New York, terminating her employment. “The city has recognized that restaurant workers are essential and at a greater risk which is why we have implemented this policy to maintain a safe working environment,” Scagnelli wrote in the email. “Therefore, in order to continue employment with us, getting the vaccine is required. At this time your employment will be terminated.”
The abrupt firing came as a shock to Jacobson, who had been working at the restaurant since August. “I was assured multiple times that it wouldn’t be mandatory,” Jacobson says. “Even when I saw that email [mandating vaccinations], I never thought that’s what that would lead to. I thought there would be a conversation.”
In response to questions about what happened with Jacobson, Durney, who also owns Hometown Bar-B-Que, said in an emailed statement: “No one has faced these challenges before and we made a decision that we thought would best protect everyone. And, we now realize that we need to update our policy so it’s clear to our team how the process works and what we can do to support them. We’re making these changes immediately.”
Restaurant workers have been vaccine-eligible in NYC since early February, and many staffers have been trying to schedule appointments ever since the state opened up eligibility. However, this appears to be the first known case in the city of a restaurant that has mandated that its employees get vaccinated in order to continue employment with the company. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines last December specifying that it was legal for employers to require staffers to get the COVID-19 vaccination, but, as employment attorney Felicia Ennis told NBC New York, termination “should be a last resort” in these cases. “Before you terminate anybody, you have to really be able to show why that particular person is going to pose a significant, or they call it a ‘direct threat,’” Ennis said.
Jacobson says that many of her Red Hook Tavern front-of-house colleagues have been scheduling vaccination appointments and receiving their first round of shots in order to comply with the restaurant’s new rule.
Red Hook Tavern and owner Durney would often communicate that “we are a family, and a community, and we’re navigating this together,” Jacobson says of her time working at the restaurant during the pandemic. But the company’s handling of the vaccination mandate has felt like the opposite sentiment to her. “I shouldn’t be put in this position,” Jacobson says. “This isn’t the choice that I should be making right now.”
Update, 6:20 p.m.: Following Jacobson’s interviews with the press, Red Hook Tavern sent out an official COVID-19 vaccination policy to all current staffers in the afternoon on February 17, which Eater New York obtained. The policy outlines that vaccinations are required among all staffers, except in the cases of “a documented medical and/or religious reason.” The restaurant is requiring all employees to get fully vaccinated within 60 days of becoming eligible to receive the vaccine. The full policy is below:
Update, 6:45 p.m.: This story has been updated with comments from Red Hook Tavern owner William Durney.
- Brooklyn Woman Fired From Job After Not Getting Vaccine Because She Wanted to Wait [NBC New York]