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States offer jobless aid to workers fired over employer vaccine requirement

New jobless claims up slightly
First-time unemployment claims up slightly for the first time since September 05:18

Some states want to ensure that Americans who quit their jobs or who are fired over COVID-19 vaccine requirements in the workplace can collect unemployment.

Thousands of workers across the U.S. have declined to comply with vaccine mandates, now the norm among many employers. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 5% of unvaccinated workers say they have chosen to leave their jobs rather than accede to an employer's directive that they get inoculated. 

In general, workers who quit their job or who are dismissed after defying a company's vaccine rule, willfully flouting its terms and conditions of employment, are ineligible for unemployment benefits.

"The states administer unemployment insurance programs according to the rules that the states set, and that includes eligibility," said Helen Rella, an employment attorney at Wilk Auslander. 

Which states are protecting unvaccinated workers?

Now, four Republican-led states have changed their unemployment insurance rules to protect workers who oppose vaccination requirements by ensuring that they can collect jobless aid. As of this month, Florida, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee have each amended their laws around unemployment insurance. 

"These rulings by the states in terms of administration of unemployment insurance programs are part and parcel of opposition to vaccine mandates in general," Rella said. 

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in October signed a bill guaranteeing unemployment benefits for those who are fired for refusing a vaccine. "No Iowan should be forced to lose their job or livelihood over the COVID-19 vaccine," she said in a statement at the time.  

Lawmakers in Florida, Kansas and Tennessee, later approved similar measures providing jobless aid to people who were fired or quit for refusing shots. 

States have the authority to set their own unemployment laws. By contrast, the Biden administration's vaccine rule for larger companies, which faces stiff legal challenges, would be enforced at the federal level by the U.S. Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"The [OSHA] mandate is a matter of federal law and state unemployment is a matter of state law. So when you look at red states and blue states, it is fairly clear that the red states sure want to protect those folks that feel they are 'victimized' by what the red states consider the unfair mandates," said attorney Alan Rupe, vice chair of the labor and employment practice at Lewis Brisbois. "They have the opportunity to provide coverage for unemployment to folks who are terminated for that reason."

"Doesn't undermine the mandate"

Workers typically qualify for unemployment benefits if they are fired through no fault of their own. They generally forfeit those benefits if they are terminated for cause, which includes failure to comply with a company policy such as a vaccine rule, for example. 

The state laws do not interfere with the Biden administration's vaccine rule. 

"It really doesn't undermine the mandate; it just provides unemployment insurance for those people who have been fired for reason of the mandate," Rupe said.

Some businesses are firing employees who submit fake vaccination cards 11:27

While vaccine rules and mandates are legal, employers must provide exemptions for individuals whose sincerely held religious beliefs or disability interferes with vaccination. These new state laws also protect workers who object to the vaccine for personal, philosophical or other reasons. 

"There are exceptions built into mandates on religious and disability grounds, but this would be for folks who say I'm not getting a vaccine because I don't want to for some reason other than religion or a disability," said Patrick Peters, an employment attorney at Jackson Lewis. "All it's going to do is, if somebody loses their job because they refuse to get vaccines, they will get benefits, whereas they might otherwise not."

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