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Darden to offer up to 4 paid hours to workers for COVID vaccines

Restaurants, groceries begin to outline policies as frontline employees near eligibility

Darden Restaurants Inc. will be offering its hourly workers up to four hours of pay as incentive to get both of the COVID-19 vaccines when they become available, the company CEO said in a letter to employees on Tuesday.

The Orlando, Fla.-based company, parent to more than 1,800 casual-dining brands such as Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and others, will compensate workers two hours of pay for each dose of the vaccine they receive, said Gene Lee, Darden CEO and chairman, in a memo to team members.

“The COVID-19 vaccine will be a critical tool in helping end this pandemic, which will allow us to welcome more guests and team members back into our restaurants,” Lee wrote. “We recognize getting vaccinated is a personal decision that you alone can make. While we will not require hourly team members to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, we strongly encourage you consider getting vaccinated.”

Ray Blanchette, CEO of Dallas-based TGI Fridays, on Friday told CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street” that the casual-ding brand would not mandate that its employees receive the Covid-19 vaccine when it’s available. However, Blanchette said the brand would probably offer some kind of financial incentive to workers.

Kevin Johnson, CEO of Seattle-based Starbucks Corp., last week said the coffee giant had assigned 11 employees with expertise in labor and deployment, operations and research and development to help speed up and optimize vaccine distribution in Washington State.

Lee of Darden on Tuesday said: “To ensure that our team members who want the vaccine do not have to choose between earning income and getting vaccinated, we will provide all hourly restaurant team members up to four hours of paid time off for the purpose of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

“For our restaurant managers, we will ensure scheduling flexibility for those who choose to get vaccinated,” he added.

Darden noted that the pay rate will be based on the team member’s total earnings, including tips, over the most recent 13 weeks — with a maximum pay rate of $20.

“If a team member has not worked for the past 13 weeks, their hourly rate of pay will be based on their primary job, but no less than their state or local minimum wage rate,” Lee said. “Team members will simply need to provide proof of vaccination to their managers in order to receive their pay.”

Restaurant brands are following in the footsteps of a number of grocery brands and supermarket delivery platforms, which earlier in the month took steps toward offering vaccination incentives.

For example, Arlington, Va.-based Lidl US is giving all of its U.S. employees who get a COVID-19 vaccination $200 in extra pay. The company said the additional payment would help offset employee costs related to receiving a coronavirus vaccine, including travel expenses and child care. Workers’ schedules also will have flexibility to accommodate appointments for the vaccine, the company added.

Dollar General Corp. said it would offer frontline hourly team members with a one-time payment equivalent of four hours of regular pay after receiving a completed COVID-19 vaccination and salaried team members with additional store labor hours to accommodate their time away from the store.  “We’re also working with our distribution and transportation teams to make similar accommodations for those teams,” Dollar General said in a statement.

San Francisco-based Instacart, the online grocery platform, said Jan. 14 that as states and provinces begin phased vaccine rollouts, eligible workers would receive a $25 vaccine support stipend.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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