Some Republican states are expanding unemployment benefits for employees who were fired or quit due to vaccine mandates, a move that critics say effectively compensates people for refusing to get vaccinated.
Four states – Iowa, Tennessee, Florida, and Kansas – have changed their unemployment rules to include people who were fired or chose to leave their jobs due to their employers’ vaccine policies.
The partisan divide is stark, according to Anne Paxton, staff attorney and policy director for Washington state’s Unemployment Law Project. “It’s difficult to see this particular move as being motivated by anything other than political considerations.”
The development also coincides with the appearance of a new Omicron variant, raising concerns that the strain may already be present in the United States. If this is the case, there will almost certainly be a new surge in infections in the United States. Thirty states with Republican-controlled legislatures could follow suit. “I’d be very surprised if it ended at four,” Paxton said. Missouri is considering similar legislation, and states such as Maryland are looking into “mitigating factors” such as unemployment and vaccine regulations.
Some Democratic states, on the other hand, have stated that leaving a job due to mandates will disqualify former employees from receiving these benefits unless they can demonstrate exemptions.
“Partisanship continues to be a sharp dividing line in vaccine attitudes,” the Kaiser Family Foundation reported in October, with 90% of Democrats and 61% of Republicans reporting having received at least one dose.
Only 5% of unvaccinated workers reported leaving a job due to mandates, and unemployment is rapidly declining across the country.
Dorit Reiss, a law professor at UC Hastings College of the Law, pointed out that unemployment benefits are not equivalent to full-time wages. But rules like these may form an incentive against vaccination.
“It’s like offering a financial incentive for not vaccinating,” Reiss added. “If a person would not be eligible for unemployment benefits if they refused to wash their hands at work and were fired as a result, they should be treated similarly.”
According to Paxton, unemployment law in the United States is governed in part by federal law, but states have the authority to impose their own requirements or restrictions.
Employees who are fired or quit due to a company’s policies are typically ineligible for unemployment benefits, unless they have an exemption for established religious or moral objections, or medical reasons.
“Benefits are for people who are out of work due to no fault of their own,” Paxton explained. However, fault can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
In recent weeks, Republican leaders in these states have signed bills protecting benefits related to vaccination mandates, essentially liberalizing vaccine-related unemployment rules in conservative states. If states want to change the rules for those who disagree with employers’ policies, they should change the rules for everyone, according to Reiss.
There are already clear partisan differences in how states handle unemployment benefits.
“The blue states tend to be more liberal in their eligibility rules,” Paxton explained. “They usually have better benefits.” And the red states have a reputation for being frugal.”
In Florida, for example, the maximum benefit is set at $275 per week, which is less than Washington’s weekly minimum.
Many Republican-led states also chose to discontinue federal unemployment benefits earlier this year.
For businesses with more than 100 employees, as well as federal agencies and contractors, nine states have enacted restrictions on the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate. According to the National Academy for State Health Policy, Tennessee and Montana have prohibited private employers from mandating vaccines, and seven other states have imposed broad mandate restrictions. Disney World, for example, suspended its employee vaccination requirements after Florida restricted the rules.
Working around mandates like these, according to Reiss, will “make it significantly harder” to end the pandemic.