Bonnie Jacobson is the New York City waitress who says she was fired from her job for refusing to get the coronavirus vaccine. Jacobson explained to NBC News that while she is not opposed to vaccinations, she wants to wait until more research has been done to determine how the new vaccines may impact fertility and pregnant women because she and her husband are trying to have a baby.
But since restaurant workers are now eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines in New York, Jacobson’s boss at the Red Hook Tavern in Brooklyn decided to make getting the vaccine a requirement for employment. Exceptions would be made for those with a documented medical condition or religious reason, according to an email obtained by Eater New York.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Jacobson Lost Her Job With a Co-working Space Company Early On in the Pandemic
Jacobson grew up in Massachusetts, according to her Facebook page. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts in 2009, according to her LinkedIn account on which she uses her maiden name. From 2016 to 2019, she worked as an executive consultant for Rodan + Fields, a marketing company that specializes in skincare products.
But in November 2019, Jacobson made a change. She started a new job with The Wing as an assistant general manager. The company was launched as a community and co-working space for “women on their way,” as noted on its Facebook page.
But the co-working industry was hit hard by COVID-19. Jacobson lost her job in April 2020 as the pandemic prompted lockdowns and business closures. She told NBC News that she and her husband had been planning to have a baby. But her job loss put those plans on hold.
2. Jacobson Had Worked Part-Time at the Red Hook Tavern for About 6 Months Before She Was Told the Coronavirus Vaccine Would Be Mandatory
She received a message from the restaurant’s management on February 12 informing staff that the coronavirus vaccine would be mandatory for everyone, according to Eater New York. Jacobson said she responded on February 15 and shared that she wanted to wait to get the vaccine until more was known about how it might impact fertility and until she could discuss the issue with a doctor.
Jacobson shared the emailed response she received with Eater New York: “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. Therefore, in order to continue employment with us, getting the vaccine is required. At this time your employment will be terminated.” According to the New York Times, the email went on, “We are sad to see you go. If you do change your mind, please do not hesitate to let us know.”
Jacobson told NBC New York the decision stunned her because she had originally been told the vaccine would be voluntary. “I was like, wow, really? I just worked for you through a pandemic.” Jacobson added that she doesn’t want to take the risk of having to delay having a baby even longer.
3. The Red Hook Tavern Has Received Backlash Online But According to Federal Guidelines, the Firing Was Legal
The Red Hook Tavern’s Facebook page has been inundated with negative comments since Jacobson started speaking out about her situation. Several people remarked that they would no longer eat at the restaurant. Some compared the company’s decision to fire Jacobson to fascism and accused the company of abusing its power.
But according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the firing was legal. According to guidelines issued in December 2020, employers have the right to require employees to get vaccinated. But termination is meant to be a last resort. Section K.7. in the federal document addresses this issue:
If an employee cannot get vaccinated for COVID-19 because of a disability or sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance, and there is no reasonable accommodation possible, then it would be lawful for the employer to exclude the employee from the workplace. This does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker. Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities.
The owner of the Redhook Tavern, William Durney, told Eater New York in an emailed statement that the restaurant was immediately updating its policies to prevent future confusion. He told the outlet, “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.”
The policy changes include an exemption for workers with a “documented medical and/or religious reason.” The restaurant will then “engage in an interactive process to determine if an exemption as a reasonable accommodation may be appropriate.”
4. Jacobson Says She Doesn’t Want the Job Back But Felt It Was Important to Share Her Story
Jacobson is not attempting to get her job at the Red Hook Tavern back. She also insisted in an interview with NBC4 New York that money is not her motivation, either. “I’m not out for a big lawsuit. I’m not out for money,” she told the reporter. “I just think it’s an important story.”
Jacobson has also praised the Red Hook Tavern as having been a positive place to work while she was a waitress. “It’s a good restaurant, the food is excellent, the money is great,” she told the New York Post.
Jacobson added that she planned to “take a minute” for herself rather than start actively looking for another job immediately. She told the Post she and her husband intended to focus on starting a family.
5. Health Professionals Say Getting the Vaccine Is a ‘Personal Choice’ for Pregnant Women Due to the Lack of Data
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges on its website that there is little data on how the new coronavirus vaccines may impact a pregnant woman and the fetus. The organization expressed confidence that the vaccines are safe because of how they were made. But the CDC described the decision to get one as a “personal choice” for pregnant women:
CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have safety monitoring systems in place to capture information about vaccination during pregnancy and will closely monitor reports.
mRNA vaccines do not contain the live virus that causes COVID-19 and, therefore, cannot give someone COVID-19. Additionally, mRNA vaccines do not interact with a person’s DNA because the mRNA does not enter the nucleus of the cell. Cells break down the mRNA quickly. Based on how mRNA vaccines work, experts believe they are unlikely to pose a specific risk for people who are pregnant. However, the actual risks of mRNA vaccines to the pregnant person and her fetus are unknown because these vaccines have not been studied in pregnant women.
The CDC has also warned that a pregnant woman is at an increased risk for developing severe symptoms if infected with the coronavirus:
Observational data demonstrate that, while the chances for these severe health effects are low, pregnant people with COVID-19 have an increased risk of severe illness, including illness that results in ICU admission, mechanical ventilation, and death compared with non-pregnant women of reproductive age. Additionally, pregnant people with COVID-19 might be at increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as preterm birth, compared with pregnant women without COVID-19.