Nestled in the mountains just outside downtown Asheville, Japanese-style Shoji Spa and Retreat offers massage therapy, saunas and outdoor hot tubs with mountain views.
Controversy recently crept into the serene setting when Shoji co-owner Roberta Jordan announced in a March 24 email to the spa’s staff that vaccination against COVID-19 would be required for employment with the company as of June.
“… [Shoji] must move in the direction that provides the best safety plan for as many people as possible by weighing the risk to rewards. For this reason, we are setting the date of June 1 for all staff to be fully vaccinated,” Jordan wrote in an email addressed to Shoji staff members and shared with Xpress. “We do not want any of our Shojans to depart because we have such a strong wonderful team, but each person must make their own decisions going forward, and we hope you will stay with us.”
Some employees pushed back against the policy, claiming that it violates their civil liberties. Meanwhile, Jordan points to the safety of both customers and staff as her top priority.
Similar scenarios may be playing out at workplaces throughout Western North Carolina and across the country, as employers struggle to balance COVID-19 concerns with the privacy and personal choices of their employees.
“The issue is heart-wrenching for us and for employers nationwide who are trying to make the best possible decisions in extremely difficult times and circumstances,” Jordan tells Xpress. “We must consider our customers as well as the safety of all employees.”
Weighing the risks
Before Shoji announced its COVID-19 vaccine policy in March, Jordan says, the company surveyed its 37 staff members (who are employees rather than independent contractors) to get a feel for how many planned to receive the COVID-19 vaccine when it became available.
“Most employees said yes, they were getting vaccinated or had already done so. There were a number of respondents who said maybe, as they were pondering the situation and decision each and every one of us must make. A few responded no,” Jordan explains.
She says those initial responses suggested that between four and six staff members would decline the vaccine. Recognizing the potential loss of staff, Jordan nonetheless decided to move ahead, requiring employees to get fully vaccinated before May 11 to ensure full protection by June 1. She clarified that those who did not comply with the deadline would be taken off the schedule and not allowed to return to work.
Vaccination was particularly crucial for the spa’s massage therapists, Jordan says, since they work “inches away from our guests’ faces for long durations and close proximity every day.”
“These essential job functions create a high-risk environment, all the more reason we mandated vaccination for all staff,” she says.
Taking a stand
Some employees saw the company’s policy as an ultimatum, and some who had initially planned to take the vaccine subsequently came to doubt that choice.
Ann (a pseudonym) is a former employee who wishes to remain anonymous out of concerns for future employment, says that staff members’ concerns were diverse — from those who feared side effects to those who felt ethical or moral opposition to being compelled to take a vaccine.
“We still do not know how long the vaccines are effective, and there is a lot of misinformation and confusion about how they work and what they actually do,” Ann told Xpress. “It is also true that these vaccines are making some people sick, some in chronic, life-altering ways.”
According to information updated on May 25 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “To date, the systems in place to monitor the safety of these vaccines have found only two serious types of health problems after vaccination, both of which are rare. These are anaphylaxis and thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome after vaccination with J&J/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine.”
Lucas Stevenson worked at Shoji Spa for 4 ½ years as a licensed massage therapist. While he declines to share his personal decision about getting the shot, he says he was troubled by the idea that Shoji required that its employees be vaccinated by a specified deadline.
In a March 30 email addressed to Shoji’s staff and management and shared with Xpress, Stevenson outlined his objections to the company’s policy.
Because none of the available COVID-19 vaccines have received final authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration, Stevenson argued, their use under that designation should be voluntary rather than compulsory.
He also suggested that a religious exemption might be a legally valid reason for declining the vaccine. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents religious discrimination, and employers are required to provide accommodations for employees and prospective employees.
“It is about personal liberty and preserving the freedom to make good medical decisions for oneself without the fear of having to forsake one’s livelihood or face other negative consequences from society at large,” says Ann.
Stevenson also noted that the May 11 deadline to get vaccinated failed to provide sufficient notice for employees to make a decision on the issue, especially since a staff member might need to look for a new job as a consequence of that choice.
Jordan counters that employees could have requested a 30-day extension to receive the vaccine, though no staff members asked for more time.
“We accepted whatever last date they chose to give,” says Jordan of the employees who left. “No one was terminated or given a last date of employment by the company. We accepted each person’s last day as they advised us, without consequence or repercussion.”
Susan Russo Klein, an Asheville-based attorney specializing in employment issues and who represents the company, says that Shoji is “well within its rights to establish workplace policies.”
In an April 1 letter to Stevenson and other staff members on behalf of Shoji, Russo Klein stated that because the spa’s core business is health and wellness-based, it has an obligation to provide reasonable health and safety measures — which could include mandating that its employees receive the vaccine.
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which administers and enforces civil rights laws in the workplace, Russo Klein continued, employers in North Carolina are within their legal rights in requiring workers to receive a vaccine as a condition of employment, including in the case of a drug that is authorized on an emergency-use basis.
Russo Klein went on to advise that, while a religious exemption would provide an exception to Shoji’s policy, the process for receiving such an exemption is lengthy and complicated. Employees must provide documentation, and both parties must engage in “an interactive process” to determine whether an accommodation would present an undue hardship to Shoji or whether other measures might reasonably accommodate the exempt employee.
“In other words, employees can’t just claim an exemption to avoid getting the vaccine,” Russo Klein wrote.
“While Shoji genuinely regrets losing any employee, we strongly believe we have an obligation to our guests and our workers to ensure that we provide a safe and healthy environment,” she wrote in a statement to Xpress on behalf of the spa.
The power of choice
Jordan says she can’t say for sure how many employees left Shoji as a result of the COVID-19 vaccination policy, while Stevenson says he counts at least 16 members of a 37-person staff.
Former staff member Jane decided to leave based on what she saw as an ultimatum to steer what she believes should have been a personal choice. To protect her privacy regarding a personal medical decision, Xpress agreed to refer to Jane by a pseudonym.
“I just felt like it was a big decision for me to decide to get the shot and I wanted it to be mine,” she says. “I didn’t want to do it because my boss told me or because someone on the internet was shaming me into it.”
While Jane says she was initially hesitant to receive the vaccine due to concerns around its rapid production and potentially unknown side effects, she spent time reviewing information and hearing from friends and trusted colleagues before deciding to get vaccinated.
“At this point, I feel like enough people and friends have gotten it that I feel comfortable getting it, where I wasn’t before. I’ve done my research. I’ve sat with my intuition and my body,” Jane explains. “My yes needed to be a full yes coming from my own voice. That is what consent is.”
Stevenson says that he and most of the former staff members have already found new employment. He is working with local attorneys to determine whether legal action is an option for former Shoji workers upset over the situation.
“Even though the laws regarding workers make for a challenging legal case that tends to favor employers, this is still an important and worthwhile precedent to set,” Stevenson says. “We are still working with legal professionals to represent us, are speaking with North Carolina representatives and, most importantly, we have used the power of cooperation at the individual level to make our civil liberties clearly heard and respected. If you have an ethical, medical, or religious reason to avoid vaccination, now is the time to demonstrate your sovereignty to the fullest extent.”
Meanwhile, Jane notes that approaching the vaccination issue with communication and empathy may lead to better outcomes.
“I just feel like the way that we’re talking about the vaccine — and this is way beyond Shoji — is that if you want people to be on your side and get the vaccine, don’t be mean and don’t condemn or shame, blame, pressure others,” she says. “What made me change my mind was talking to my friends who listened to my concerns and were like, ‘Oh that makes sense that you would feel that way. Here’s some information.’”