UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

Unemployment benefits: Will those fired for not getting vaccinated be eligible for the payments?

Vaccine mandates are becoming increasingly common in corporate America, with workers refusing to get a shot now risking losing their unemployment support.

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Unemployment benefits: Will those fired for not getting vaccinated be eligible for the payments?
FREDERIC J. BROWN AFP

Corporate America is following the cues of the federal government in introducing tough new vaccination requirements for workers. President Biden recently passed a law requiring all unvaccinated federal employees to submit to extra covid-19 protocols and a growing number of private firms are going one step further.

The likes of Walmart, Google, Facebook, Tyson Foods and United Airlines have recently announced vaccine mandates for workers, in response to the spiralling infection rate. Last Sunday the United States reported a seven-day average of over 108,000 new cases per day, a 36% increase on the week previous.

Employees risk losing their jobs if they do not receive a vaccination, but will they still be entitled to unemployment benefits if they find themselves out of work?

States are able to withhold unemployment support

While the huge companies imposing the new mandates are national entities, workers’ eligibility for unemployment support if they fall foul of the vaccine mandates depends on the state. As a general rule, private companies are free to set the conditions of employment for workers to adhere to, provided they do not violate existing laws.

There is no federal law prohibiting firms from requiring their employees be vaccinated, against covid-19 or any other infectious disease. The United States’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does not prevent employers introducing such requirements for workers who are physically in the workplace, however they must provide reasonable alternatives for those who cannot get vaccinated for medical or religious reasons.

Jeffrey Hirsch, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, explains: "American employment law is very deferential to employers, which are able to exert a lot of control over workers.”

Will unvaccinated workers lose their access to unemployment support?

While the eligibility requirements vary from state to state, individuals would typically have to prove that they are currently unemployed through no fault of their own to collect unemployment support. Without a medical or religious reason to refuse a covid-19 vaccine, many employment law experts believe that most states would rule that the individual would not qualify for unemployment support.

Alana Ackels, employment lawyer at Dallas-based law firm Bell Nunnally, told MarketWatch: “Typically, an employee who is terminated for failing to comply with company policies is not eligible for unemployment benefits, which would include refusing to comply with a company’s covid-19 prevention policies, masking requirements or vaccine requirements.”

It has been compared to refusal to submit to employer-mandated drugs tests or safety training sessions, in that the company has the right to fire someone for refusing to engage in the activity. However lawsuits have already begun to sprout up, challenging the legality of enforcing a mandate on vaccinations that have technically only been granted emergency approval status.