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Some local businesses turn to incentives to get employees vaccinated

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

As coronavirus case rates began their ominous ascent in July, Stark Reality Restaurants surveyed its 475 employees to gauge how many had been vaccinated. The survey revealed that about 85% had already gotten their shots — an admirable figure that exceeds the county rate, which is just under 80% (including partial vaccination) of the eligible population.

Terri Stark, who co-owns the group of seven Sonoma County restaurants that include Willi’s Wine Bar and Bravas, didn’t think that number was high enough.

“Because 85% still means that 70-some people in our company are not vaccinated,” Stark said. “That’s 70-odd people who work in close quarters with each other. And are working indoors around guests.”

Stark wanted to get closer to 100%. But she and her husband, Mark, were loath to mandate vaccines for their workers. They knew some would be resistant, for a variety of oft-discussed reasons, and they couldn’t afford to drive any employees away, given the difficulty many busineeses have had building back staff levels.

“Ultimately, we have been struggling to get back to full capacity, as far as our staffing guidelines,” Terri Stark said. “Making a vaccine mandatory is not really appealing right now, because we want to stay open. If it’s going to be mandated, it’s not gonna come from us.”

So instead of the stick, the Starks opted for a carrot.

On July 23, they announced that any vaccinated Stark employee would be eligible to win a prepaid gift card worth $1,000. Stark Reality will give away 21 in total, three awarded at each of the seven restaurants, all to be selected via lottery on Sept. 1.

Many state governments have offered financial motivation to get vaccinated. That includes California, which will distribute at least $116.5 million in prizes, a payout that includes 10 grand prizes of $1.5 million each.

But private companies haven’t been as quick to incentivize the vaccines. A lot of them have been hurt financially by the pandemic. Some shy away from any position that might place them on either side of America’s vaccine-politics gulf. Others simply don’t see vaccination as part of their mission.

Some of the nation’s largest corporations have followed suit, offering at least small rewards to their immunized workers.

The Vanguard Group, a major investment adviser, said last week it will give each of its 16,500 employees a $1,000 bonus for getting the COVID shots by October.

Most incentive plans are far more modest. They include commitments made by Walmart (a $150 bonus for all employees at its stores and warehouses), Amazon ($80 for existing employees, $100 for new hires), American Airlines (one additional day of paid vacation in 2022 plus $50 in rewards points), the grocery delivery service Instacart (a $25 stipend to offset lost wages), McDonald’s (four hours of pay), Target (four hours of pay, plus $15 each way for workers who take Lyft rides to vaccination appointments) and Trader Joe’s (two hours of pay for each dose).

Phone calls and emails to a number of prominent Sonoma County companies made it clear that not many local many businesses are joining in the giveaways yet. But there are some.

Russian River Brewing Company jumped on the idea right away, offering incentives to its workers as early as March. Those lures included paid wages for any time lost to vaccination appointments, and an additional $50 credited to an employee’s Brew Bucks card — an ongoing Russian River perk that gives pub and production workers money, based on hours worked, that they can apply to takeout beer orders.

Fewer than 10 of the brewery’s 151 current employees are unvaccinated at this point, Russian River co-owner Natalie Cilurzo estimates. The incentives are aimed primarily at new hires.

Part of the alarm surrounding the delta variant of the coronavirus is that vaccinated people are getting infected, too. But the unvaccinated are still acquiring it at a much higher rate — currently about 46 people each day per 100,000 residents for the former, about 10 for the latter — and the disparity in hospitalizations and deaths is even more dramatic. And for employers, the impact of a confirmed case in the workplace goes beyond time missed by whoever catches the virus.

“If someone tests positive and they’ve only been around vaccinated people, those people don’t have to test, and they don’t have to quarantine,” Cilurzo said. “It’s hard to run a business if someone tests positive and people aren’t vaccinated.”

Redwood Empire Lumber, Sonoma County’s largest sawmill and the biggest private employer in Cloverdale, put up incentives of its own in April, offering $100 bonus pay to any mill worker who got vaccinated by the end of June. It was more of a proactive move than a response to perceived resistance among staff, Redwood Empire general manager Bill Highsmith said.

“We just felt it was important,” Highsmith explained. “COVID impacted our business. We wanted to make sure we protected our employees as much as possible. And from a business standpoint, we wanted to make sure our employees were healthy enough to come to work.”

Highsmith believes 70% of his crew is fully vaccinated, and that the incentives were a positive factor.

“If they were folks who were on the fence about it, yes, I think it kind of helped,” he said.

Many other Sonoma County companies have worked hard to educate employees on vaccine effectiveness and safety, keep them up to date on clinic locations and in some cases even offer transportation to from sites. But most have stopped short of financial incentives.

And now the Stark Restaurants group has upped the game. Terri Stark emphasized that the company has managed to avoid any COVID outbreaks during the pandemic. The seven restaurants have seen about 10 coronavirus cases, she said, and none of the infections were traced to the workplace. Stark talked about the obligations business owners have toward public health.

“Having so many employees who go to various neighborhoods and live in our community, we felt that by doing something like this, we can actually have an impact,” she said. “We’re not someone who employs 10-15 people.”

In the 2½ weeks since Stark Reality Restaurants announced the gift card lottery, at least 10 employees have signed up for a chance to win, Terri Stark said. She has had one-on-one conversations about vaccination with many of her workers, and she doesn’t judge the ones who have lagged in getting doses.

“They are of a certain age group,” she said. “When you think about it, how much time has gone by since there’s been a vaccine that’s mandated? I didn’t get the polio or smallpox vaccines. And I’m 51. Besides what schools require, there hasn’t been anything like this. I think somebody they trust has told them not to get it. That’s the challenge.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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