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Fired for refusing the vaccine? Don't count on unemployment benefits

Unvaccinated workers may not get unemployment
Workers fired over vaccine status likely ineligible for unemployment aid 04:35

Workers who are fired for refusing to get inoculated against COVID-19 need not apply — for unemployment benefits. 

Not being eligible for government assistance if you lose your job for being unvaccinated is yet another indicator that the cost of forgoing the vaccine is rising in the U.S.

Vaccine mandates are quickly becoming the norm at companies large and small across the U.S., as employers take steps to ensure their workplaces are safe and their workers are protected against COVID-19. 

Workers typically qualify for unemployment benefits if they are terminated through no fault of their own. But experts say they forfeit these benefits if they leave a position on their own volition or if they are terminated for cause, such as because they failed to comply with company policy, for example.

You're disqualified

"Generally if you do something bad, commit misconduct, violate company policy, then you are disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits," said Jason Habinsky, chair of New York-based law firm Haynes Boone's labor and employment practice. "If you leave on your own or are terminated for a reason, you're not eligible." 

Similarly, violating a company's COVID-19 vaccination policy in most cases disqualifies a worker from receiving assistance. 

"In the case of not complying with a vaccine mandate, that is like failing to comply with any other employer-related policy. Generally, that is a reason an agency would deny unemployment insurance benefits," Habinsky added. 

Individual states' departments of labor review unemployment claims on a case-by-case basis, taking the circumstances and basis for an employee's termination into consideration. New York state's labor department makes clear on its website that workers in health care facilities, schools and nursing homes who quit or are terminated for refusing the vaccine will be ineligible for unemployment benefits, unless they qualify for a medical or religious exemption to the mandate.

Why some employees are facing difficulties in obtaining medical exemptions for COVID-19 vaccine 04:36

The state's guidelines say "these are workplaces where an employer has a compelling interest in such a mandate, especially if they already require other immunizations."

In other circumstances, however, an unvaccinated worker who is fired may be eligible for unemployment insurance "if that person's work has no public exposure and the worker has a compelling reason for refusing to comply with the directive," according to the NYS Department of Labor website. 

Washington state's Department of Employment Security says it will consider a variety of factors when evaluating claims for unemployment benefits from workers who are fired because they failed to comply with their employer's vaccination requirement. 

These factors include: 

  • Whether the employee is eligible for other benefits
  • The specific terms of the vaccine policy and its exemptions
  • The reason why the employee did not comply with the vaccine mandate

If the employer complied with the law, and allowed exemptions for workers with medical conditions or sincerely held religious beliefs that interfere with vaccination, but found the employee did not qualify for an accommodation, then that individual's claim would likely be denied, according to the department. 

"Maybe it would be a different situation where someone was laid off as a result of having received a religious exemption or medical-based exemption. In that circumstance, perhaps you might see someone being eligible for benefits depending on the state," said Helen Rella, an employment attorney at New York firm Wilk Auslander.

Few caveats, exceptions

A worker who was denied unemployment benefits after being terminated for forgoing the vaccine might successfully challenge the denial if their employer did not have an official vaccination policy in place, or failed to enforce it uniformly. 

"Agencies will look at a totality of factors and very often look to find reasons supporting payment of unemployment benefits, including did the employer actually have a policy, did the employee know about the policy, is the employer applying the policy uniformly to all employees or was this person just cherry-picked to enforce policy. All of those reasons could move the needle in the other direction," Habinsky said.

Individuals who qualified for reasonable accommodations on medical or religious grounds would also be protected and likely eligible for unemployment benefits if they had been laid off or suspended without pay.

Religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates grow 04:48

"In that case you have a stronger argument that you would get benefits while looking for a new job compatible with your medical condition. But those are really the only caveats that there are," San Diego employment attorney Daniel Eaton said. 

Apart from these conditions, exceptions are few and far between. 

"The general proposition is that it is lawful for an employer to mandate the vaccine and so if an employee doesn't get it, it's a choice," said Domenique Camacho Moran, a labor attorney at New York-based law firm Farrell Fritz. "It's like saying, 'I don't want this job, thank you.' It's being treated like a voluntary quit."

Eaton provided another analogy: "It's like if your employer said, 'Come in at 9 o'clock and you said, 'Thanks for sharing, I'll come in at 11.' If you engage in deliberate misconduct like that, you won't be entitled to unemployment benefits which are designed to be provided to those who are separated through no fault of their own," he said.

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