Though many employers throughout the country seem to be shying away from policies requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for their workers, Puerto Rico may be one place bucking the trend.
Small businesses in Puerto Rico, a United States territory, are far more likely to say they are requiring workers to get their shots compared to the national average, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Requiring proof for in-person work is something 20.9% of small businesses in Puerto Rico said they did in the last week, compared to the 4.5% national average, according to survey data collected from early to mid-June.
Puerto Rico’s far-and-away lead on the topic can be attributed to caution and especially high stakes if a COVID-19 outbreak hits a business, observers say.
New York-based small businesses were the second-most likely, with 8.3% mandating proof and California came in third, with 7.3%.
On the flip side, Georgia and Minnesota were the states where the fewest number of employers (2.4%) wanted to tie proof of vaccination to a paycheck. Small businesses in Ohio (2.5%) and Florida (2.6%) were second and third least likely to require vaccination proof.
The Census’ small business pulse survey is based on an ongoing email survey of approximately 885,000 business with fewer than 499 workers.
In the months that the survey has been asking about proof of vaccination for workers, Puerto Rico poll participants have been saying “yes” more often than national averages.
For example, when 2.5% of small businesses in April were saying they would require proof, 14.8% of survey participants in Puerto Rico said they would be doing the same.
Companies are allowed to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for people showing up for in-person work, according to guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Last week, a federal judge upheld a mandatory vaccination policy at a Houston, Texas hospital system. Nevertheless, many surveys — including the Census poll — indicate employers, on the whole, don’t want to force the issue.
So what’s happening in Puerto Rico?
“Essentially the issue is that so many business owners were/are on the brink of closing up shop for good and are working on such razor-thin margins, they simply can’t afford to risk having to close up shop again,” said Joel Berrocal, national director of small business development at the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce.
‘Essentially the issue is that so many business owners were/are on the brink of closing up shop for good and are working on such razor-thin margins, they simply can’t afford to risk having to close up shop again.’
— Joel Berrocal, national director of small business development at the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce
The island territory had a population of 3.28 million as of April 2020, according to Census data.
Since the pandemic’s start, the island territory had 139,582 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 2,539 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Since vaccines became publicly available, 3.22 million doses have been administered in Puerto Rico, the university said.
Case count timelines show two intense waves of COVID-19 infections cresting in the early winter and then also in April 2021.
Government lockdown measures were tough and quick last year, according to Jose Caraballo-Cueto, an economist teaching at the University of Puerto Rico. For example, officials just lifted a nightly curfew last month and Caraballo-Cueto is still teaching his own students remotely.
If officials traced a case back to a business, they would require the business to shut down for several weeks as a containment measure, Caraballo-Cueto noted.
Business owners were generally supportive of the strict efforts, he said, reflecting a wider aversion to risk throughout Puerto Rico. “In the case of Puerto Rico, there was a widely-shared belief that we have to take care of ourselves,” said Caraballo-Cueto, who is the director of Puerto Rico’s Census Information Center, a local branch of the bureau.
Compared to the 50 U.S. states, COVID-19’s consequences affected Puerto Rico “at a much worse rate,” Berrocal said. “Puerto Rico also doesn’t have the same healthcare infrastructure, which made it even more vulnerable,” he noted.
So that may make businesses much more prone to cautious approaches, he said — especially seeing that many brick-and-mortar stores didn’t have other e-commerce methods to sell products and services if the physical site closed up.
Berrocal said many businesses either did not, or could not, “properly adapt to the new reality of COVID-19 over the past year.”