Puerto Rico Small Businesses Lead In Covid Vaccine Mandates : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money Only 3 to 4 percent of small businesses in many states require workers to show proof of vaccination but in Puerto Rico, the number is 20 percent. Why? We speak with an economist and two business owners to find out.

Should Business Mandate Covid Vaccines For Employees?

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

We've been watching COVID numbers this weekend, and it's not looking good. We've had rises in all 50 states, and hospitalizations have sharply ticked up, too. And yet over 30% of American adults have not yet had a single vaccination shot. So we were wondering, what role did businesses play in helping encourage their workers to get the vaccine?

SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:

We know from the Kaiser Family Foundation that workers are far more likely to get vaccinated if their employers are supportive, like if they offer paid time off to get the shot or even a vaccine bonus.

WOODS: But, you know, there are not just carrots in this world.

HERSHIPS: No.

WOODS: Benefits, paid time off. There are also sticks. Companies can mandate that their workers get vaccinated. That's legal, but mostly, it's not happening. In states like Texas, Michigan and Ohio, only about 3 or 4% of small businesses are making sure that employees are vaccinated. And that's pretty close to the national average.

HERSHIPS: But there is one exception - Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, that number quadruples. Twenty percent of small businesses there are mandating employee vaccinations. We wanted to see why businesses on this one specific island seem to have evolved in a different way in the response to the pandemic. We thought the answer would be easy (laughter), but no. I'm Sally Herships.

WOODS: And I'm Darian Woods. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Islands - they're unique. Whole species can evolve there. And on today's show, we take a trip on an island getaway to discover why small businesses on Puerto Rico are responding differently to the rest of the country.

HERSHIPS: Right from the beginning of the pandemic, Puerto Rico's governor, Wanda Vazquez, stepped in early and hard.

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WANDA VAZQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HERSHIPS: Here she is during an announcement in which she ordered almost all non-essential businesses closed - stores, theaters, parks, malls, gyms. There was this total curfew for almost two months. If you violated the restrictions, you could be fined $5,000. You could even go to jail. These were some of the strictest and earliest restrictions in the United States. Jose Caraballo-Cueto is an economics professor at the University of Puerto Rico.

JOSE CARABALLO-CUETO: People were not able to go out of their house except for buying food or medicines or going to the hospital, and that's it.

WOODS: Jose says that this pretty strict lockdown is reason No. 1 that so many more small businesses in Puerto Rico are requiring that their workers get vaccinated. Puerto Rico is just way more strict on the virus. I mean, there has been ups and downs, of course. Last year Puerto Rico opened up the island to tourists. With them came more of the virus and variants. Cases spiked. But when that happened, once again, the government tightened restrictions, and numbers started plummeting. Now, Jose says, if a positive case is found, the government can shut down your business for two weeks or sometimes even more.

CARABALLO-CUETO: So I think that's one of the reasons why small business owners in Puerto Rico - they say, I'm not going to afford this risk. You better be vaccinated before coming to work with us, or you better don't come back.

HERSHIPS: The next reason businesses on the island have taken such a firm hand has to do with the culture there, specifically attitudes toward science and politics. Basically, everyone we spoke to view these as two totally different things. So when it comes to the pandemic...

ROBERT DURAN: The story is that it's not political.

WOODS: Robert Duran lives on this kind of remote part of the island in the mountains, Aibonito. And he owns a small company that makes custom radiators for cars and trucks. He was born in New Jersey, but his parents were born in Puerto Rico, and he would go back and forth all the time.

DURAN: My feeling is that the biggest divisions within Puerto Ricans are whether you are part of the statehood party or the party that wants to promote the Commonwealth or the Independence Party. But at the end of the day, everybody is still Puerto Rican.

HERSHIPS: Which is a totally different story than what's been going on in other parts of the country. Robert says Puerto Ricans appear mostly immune from this kind of mishmash of science and politics.

DURAN: Besides the great weather, it's a really big advantage to living down here.

WOODS: Robert says that he didn't even know that as a small business owner, he's allowed to require his employees to get vaccinated. He's got about 40 workers, but he says even if he had known, requiring them to get the vaccine is something he probably wouldn't have done. He felt it wasn't his place to require something like that.

DURAN: I believe it should be the role of the government.

HERSHIPS: But it's kind of a moot point because making sure his workers are vaccinated has not been something that Robert has had to really worry about.

DURAN: The uptake has been pretty high. And in our company, we've had 90% vaccination rate.

WOODS: Ninety percent vaccination rate without even requiring it. Keep in mind Puerto Rico has had this long recession. It's had chronically high poverty, and Puerto Ricans have had less access to federal assistance like food stamps than people in the rest of the country. And, of course, we can't forget that it has been battered by hurricanes in recent years, like Hurricane Maria.

HERSHIPS: Luis Negron owns a small bookstore on the island.

LUIS NEGRON: I mean, I've been doing this for over 30 years, but this bookstore is probably five years.

HERSHIPS: He knows all about these hurricanes.

NEGRON: After Maria, I lost my house, and then I lost my job. And then I was waiting, looking for a job. So I decided to open this tiny, tiny little bookstore. And I was so happy. And then COVID happened.

HERSHIPS: And he said the same thing that Robert did. He didn't have to require his employees get the vaccine because they already all had it. He and his co-workers are all thrilled about getting the shot, which brings us to the next reason that businesses here are so much more likely to tell their employees to get vaccinated already, darn it. It's just - it's not a hard sell to get people here to take it.

NEGRON: It's common sense. I don't - I really don't see why the big delay. I was ready to get back. I was ready for good news. And the vaccine is definitely the best news that we can hope for.

WOODS: And here we should point out that we called and emailed a lot of small businesses in Puerto Rico.

HERSHIPS: So many.

WOODS: Call-outs.

HERSHIPS: Facebook, LinkedIn, old students.

WOODS: MySpace.

HERSHIPS: Probably not MySpace.

WOODS: A custom frame shop, a taxi company, the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association. But almost every small business we talked to said the same thing as Robert and Luis. They also didn't have to worry about it because their employees, almost all of them - they're already vaccinated.

HERSHIPS: But, Darian, island life is not perfect. Jose, the economist, says like many other parts of the country, PR is also experiencing a labor shortage, especially restaurants and hotels - the kinds of businesses that rely on younger workers who we know can be more vaccine-hesitant.

WOODS: But Jose says for the most part, there's an argument to be made, one more reason why businesses on the island are more likely to take a heavy-handed approach. It's that the social contract in Puerto Rico is different from that and the rest of the United States. He says people value health over the economy.

CARABALLO-CUETO: Let's not go too fast to open schools. I don't want to. We're thinking that it's going to be too early to open the universities or to open shopping centers.

HERSHIPS: But Jose says you can have both health and a strong economy. He's actually working on a study on the economic impact of early intervention, like the kind that Puerto Rico took. He took data from the whole of the U.S. and compared states that took what you might call a laissez-faire approach to the pandemic - you know, like light on the masks, less social distancing.

WOODS: Choose your own adventure lockdowns.

HERSHIPS: And he found that those laissez-faire states did not do as well economically as states that had stricter policies in place like Puerto Rico did.

WOODS: For the U.S. as a whole, that kind of approach - it could save almost $204 billion for U.S. taxpayers and not to mention saving about 600,000 American lives.

CARABALLO-CUETO: There should not be a trade-off between life and the economy. If you take early measures, you're prepared both - you're prepared the economy; you're prepared life - than if you wait until the very end.

WOODS: But what about those sticks we heard about at the start of the show, Sally - employers requiring employees to have the vaccine?

HERSHIPS: Here's the irony of things. The places like Puerto Rico, where businesses are the most likely to step in - they are also the places that are the least likely to need to do so.

This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darian Woods and Julia Ritchie (ph). It was fact-checked by Michael He. Kate Concannon is our editor, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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