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If an employee is fired for refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19, in most cases they do not qualify for state unemployment compensation.
Employers have broad latitude in setting work requirements for employees, and mandating vaccination is one of them. That's because employers who want to take steps to keep their workplaces safe for everyone may see unvaccinated workers as a risk. In most states, the law may consider refusal to get a vaccination when required by an employer as misconduct.
This doesn't mean that workers lack options to keep their jobs while refusing vaccination, but generally, those exemptions must be based either on religious grounds or health needs. For workers who refuse vaccinations for other reasons, leaving their job may mean sacrificing not only income but also unemployment compensation.
In some Republican-led states, however, this standard is changing.
According to the Washington Post, five states – Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, and Tennessee – changed rules to allow employees to collect unemployment if they were fired or quit because of vaccination mandates. Several more states are considering it.
According to the National Academy for State Health Policy, only two states, Montana and Tennessee, have taken the step of trying to prohibit private employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations. But several more have placed restrictions on employers' ability to require vaccinations.
Florida, for instance, passed a law in November that requires employers to offer employees five permissible opt-outs: religious reasons, medical reasons, regular testing, claims of immunity due to previous COVID-19 infection, or use of personal protective equipment, such as a mask. An Alabama law, which went into effect in November, states that employers must "liberally construe" the employee's eligibility for an exemption.
On Jan. 10, the Biden administration's "vaccine or test" mandate for companies with at least 100 employees — covering some 80 million employees in all — went into effect. That mandate, however, came to an end three days later, when the Supreme Court blocked the administration from enforcing it in a 6-3 ruling.
Even without a federal mandate, most private employers are free to require vaccinations, and a majority, apparently, plans to do so, according to a survey from insurance brokerage firm Willis Towers Watson.
It appears that more and more employers are indeed firing employees who refuse vaccinations. The Mayo Clinic, for instance, recently fired more than 700 workers for refusing vaccinations — about 1% of their workforce.
In the end, it does seem ironic that the states that are pushing against private employers and seeking to provide public money to workers who decide to leave their jobs are Republican-led.
Ordinarily, one would expect the party of Lincoln to tack in the opposite direction.
But these are strange times.