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Fired for refusing a Covid vaccine? You likely can’t get unemployment benefits

Fired for refusing a Covid vaccine? You likely can’t get unemployment benefits

07 Oct 2021

Police officers stand guard at the entrance of Santa Monica pier as anti-vaccination protesters take part in a rally against Covid-19 vaccine mandates, in Santa Monica, California, on Aug. 29, 2021.

RINGO CHIU | AFP | Getty Images

As businesses and lawmakers increasingly require workers to get a Covid-19 vaccine, thousands of holdouts are losing their jobs — and they likely can’t collect unemployment benefits.

However, there may be exceptions, depending on a worker’s situation, according to employment experts. Some state legislatures are trying to change their rules altogether.

“If you don’t want to be vaccinated, don’t have a religious or disability exemption, and you lose your job, chances are you will be found ineligible for unemployment compensation,” said Christopher Moran, a partner and employment attorney at law firm Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders.


Northwell Health, the largest health-care provider in New York, recently terminated 1,400 unvaccinated workers. ChristianaCare, Novant Health and UCHealth System — health providers in Delaware, North Carolina and Colorado, respectively — cut more than 100 workers each.

United Airlines is also poised to fire nearly 600 unvaccinated employees. And Kaiser Permanente, which is based in California, said Tuesday it put more than 2,200 employees on unpaid leave nationwide.

(In all these cases, the employees affected represent a small share of the companies’ overall workforce.)

The issue may soon affect many more people — about 46% of organizations plan to institute a vaccine mandate, according to survey published by Gartner, a consulting firm, last month.

The U.S. Department of Labor is also soon expected to issue a rule mandating vaccines (or regular Covid testing) among businesses with at least 100 employees. The White House is also requiring vaccines for all federal workers, contractors who do work for the federal government and health-care workers at facilities receiving Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.

Earlier this year, 28% of employed Americans said they wouldn’t get a Covid vaccine even if it costs them their job, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. (The group surveyed 1,000 people in January and February.)

Unemployment benefits

Workers qualify for unemployment benefits in cases of “eligible job separation,” according to Anne Paxton, an attorney and policy director at the Unemployment Law Project, which represents individuals in appeals cases when their benefits have been denied.

States somewhat differ in their definitions. In most, workers can collect benefits after they are laid off, quit a job for “good cause” or get fired for a reason other than “misconduct,” Paxton said.

However, a labor agency would likely deem refusal to comply with a vaccine mandate as “misconduct,” she said. Losing one’s job as a result would therefore likely disqualify a worker from benefits (if the refusal hadn’t been for a medical or religious reason).

Similarly, quitting to avoid a mandate would also likely not be viewed as “good cause.”

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“I think the consensus is very strong that employers are within their rights to protect workplace safety, and employees are not within their rights to refuse to comply,” she said.

But there are variables and gray areas, which may vary by state, she added.

For example, a worker who receives an exemption from their vaccine requirement for a religious or medical reason might not be fired, but placed on unpaid leave. Since they received a legitimate exemption, a labor agency might approve a claim for benefits.

“I’d think in that scenario you’d probably be eligible,” Moran said.

State labor agencies

Indeed, language from state labor bureaus appears to leave wiggle room in certain other cases.

“Some individuals may still qualify based on their own unique circumstances,” according to Washington State’s Employment Security Department.

Washington officials will weigh factors such as when the employer adopted the vaccine requirement, the specific terms of the vaccine policy and the reason why the employee didn’t comply with the mandate. (If an employee doesn’t qualify for a religious or medical accommodation, their unemployment claim “would likely be denied,” the agency said.)

I think the consensus is very strong that employers are within their rights to protect workplace safety, and employees are not within their rights to refuse to comply.

Anne Paxton

attorney and policy director at the Unemployment Law Project

The New York State Labor Department website takes a similar position. Workers who refuse an employer’s vaccine directive may be eligible for benefits “in some cases if that person’s work has no public exposure and the worker has a compelling reason for refusing to comply with the directive,” the bureau said.

However, by contrast, New York public employees and workers in health-care facilities, nursing homes or schools would be disqualified (absent a valid exemption) “because these are workplaces where an employer has a compelling interest in such a mandate, especially if they already require other immunizations,” the bureau said.

Republican lawmakers in Tennessee proposed legislation earlier this year to let workers who quit their jobs due to a vaccine requirement collect unemployment benefits. Other state legislatures, such as those in Idaho and Michigan, are trying to outlaw terminations based on vaccine status altogether. (These measures haven’t been successful so far.)

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a law in May banning vaccine requirements among employers.