The claim: workers laid off for refusing to receive a vaccine are entitled to unemployment benefits
The highly transmittable delta coronavirus variant has caused a nationwide surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. As a result, more and more workplaces require employees to have a vaccination certificate.
In some states, corporate vaccine mandates have met with opposition, with some employees quitting and filing lawsuits. A survey by Morning Consult in June found that 18% of employees said they would quit if faced with pandemic-related mandates in the workplace.
However, some social media users say that workers should avoid quitting their jobs if they want to receive unemployment benefits.
“If your employer orders any taunts, YOU CANNOT GIVE UP,” read an August 4th Facebook post that accumulated more than 5,000 shares in two days. “Let them fire you. This is how you receive unemployment benefits and can take legal action. ”
But that’s incorrect, according to a dozen employment and labor experts who spoke to USA TODAY.
An employee who does not adhere to a company’s vaccination guidelines is generally not eligible for unemployment benefits, experts say. But there are a few exceptions – and the unemployment qualification is not the same in every state.
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“Employees shouldn’t refuse to be vaccinated on the assumption that they can collect unemployment benefits,” said Natalie Sanders, labor law attorney at Brooks Pierce, in an email.
The Facebook user who shared the post did not request a comment.
Companies can impose vaccine mandates
Private companies are free to set working conditions as long as they do not violate applicable state and federal laws, say legal experts. And there is no federal law prohibiting companies from requesting vaccines.
According to guidelines from the US Equal Opportunities Commission, employers are not prohibited from requiring a vaccination from employees physically at work, as long as the requirements comply with other workplace laws. For example, the requirements must provide reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities and religious exemptions. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Justice wrote in a legal opinion that companies can lawfully require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Jeffrey Hirsch, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, said vaccination regulations in the workplace are like uniform requirements.
“American labor law is very respectful of employers who have a lot of control over workers,” Hirsch said via email. “The COVID vaccine is just one example of this ability. Although it is obviously politically charged, its content is no different from many others that have existed for a very long time.”
Several legal experts stressed that since COVID-19 vaccines are still new, it is likely that vaccine mandates from private companies will be challenged in court and the rules could change.
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“The environment is highly dynamic and changes every week,” said Richard Tarpey, assistant professor of management at Middle Tennessee State University, in an email. “The intense emotions and deep polarizations associated with the vaccination issue make predictions extremely difficult.”
Unemployment depends on government guidelines
It depends on the state, but in general, an employee who is laid off for failing to adhere to a company’s vaccination regulations is eligible to collect unemployment benefits, legal experts say.
Jennifer Shinall, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, said workers are typically barred from receiving unemployment benefits if they quit or if the employer has a reason to quit.
“But every state has a different definition of what ’cause’ is,” Shinall said. “Some states have more guidelines than others, and the COVID vaccine itself is relatively new, so these employer mandates are certainly very new.”
Labor law attorney Charles Krugel said there are some common standards that establish unemployment entitlement across the country.
If employees are fired for violating a known workplace policy and treated the same way as their colleagues, they are unlikely to receive unemployment benefits. For example, if an employee refused to follow a company’s dress code and was fired, they would not be eligible for unemployment, Hisaid.
But employees who can prove a medical or religious exception may be eligible, experts say.
“There is no one-size-fits-all answer,” said Michael Elkins, founder and partner of the MLE Law employment agency, in an email. “When an employee is fired for rejecting a company-wide policy that applies to everyone, such as:
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Tarpey said that in most situations, those who fail to meet a company’s vaccine mandate will be denied unemployment, but there are some “outliers that emerge.”
For example, he said, a pending law in Tennessee contains a provision prohibiting denial of unemployment benefits if an employee quits because of a vaccination requirement. Similar laws, including bills protecting unemployment benefits for sacked employees, have been proposed in Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, and Michigan, among others.
“If a state has a law prohibiting workers from being dismissed for refusing to be vaccinated, we can expect individuals to have solid rights to unemployment benefits and other forms of relief if they are fired for refusing to be vaccinated,” Tarpey said.
Our assessment: partly wrong
Based on our research, we judge the claim that workers who refuse a vaccine are eligible for unemployment benefits are PARTIALLY FALSE. Legal experts say that employees who violate company policies by refusing to be vaccinated can be fired for misconduct, which usually excludes an employee from unemployment benefits. However, states interpret misconduct differently and have different guidelines for unemployment benefits. Workers with evidence of a medical or religious exception can still be unemployed if they refuse the vaccine.
Our fact check sources:
- US Department of Labor, accessed August 6, How do I register for Unemployment Insurance?
- Michael Elkins, Aug 6, email exchanged with the US TODAY
- Richard Tarpey, Aug 6 email exchanges with the US TODAY
- Open States, January 13th SB 186 Tennessee Senate Bill
- Alaska State Legislature, accessed Aug. 6, HB 175: “A Law Relating to COVID-19 Vaccination Rights.”
- Arizona State Legislature, Retrieved August 6, SB 1648
- Idaho State Legislature, accessed August 6, House Bill No. 140
- Indiana General Assembly, Jan. 4, Senate Act No. 74
- Michigan Legislature, accessed August 6, House Bill 4471
- Charles Krugel, Aug 6, email exchanged with the US TODAY
- Jennifer Shinall, Aug 6, phone interview with USA TODAY
- US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, May 28, What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, Rehabilitation Act, and other EEO laws
- The Department of Justice, July 6, as to whether Section 564 of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits companies from requiring the use of a vaccine that is subject to emergency approval
- Charles Krugel, Aug 6, email exchanged with the US TODAY
- Natalie Sanders, Aug 6, email exchanged with the US TODAY
- Jared Carter, Aug 6, email exchanged with US TODAY
- Jeffrey Hirsch, Aug 6, email exchanges with the US TODAY
- Chase Hattaway, August 6, email exchange with USA TODAY
- Dan Bowling, Aug 6, email exchange with USA TODAY
- Yoora Pak, Aug 6, email exchanged with the US TODAY
- Scott Schneider, Aug 6, telephone interview with USA TODAY
- Ian Meklinsky, Aug 6, email exchanged with the US TODAY
- Associated Press, June 13: Judge resigns from challenge to hospital staff vaccination
- Associated Press, July 27, EXPLAINER: Employers have the legal right to order COVID vaccinations
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Our fact-checking work is partially supported by a grant from Facebook.