Not vaccinated? No soup for you! A report from KHOU-TV in Houston finds that employees who refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine at their employer’s behest may be ineligible for unemployment benefits if they are consequently fired.
Wrote Mia Salenetri, contributor and fact-checker for the TV station, “Some who refuse [shots] may be looking forward to the support of unemployment benefits while they look for a new job that doesn’t require vaccines. But for many of them, that might not be an option.” She added, “Major corporations like Disney and Walmart say they will require COVID-19 vaccines for some employees. In general, those fired for refusing can’t get unemployment.”
This is likely not an unforeseen development for anyone who has been paying attention to the controversy and political overload heaped onto the COVID vaccines, their efficacy, public health and matters of individual choice. Massive corporations are likely to follow the lead of Disney and Walmart, whereas smaller businesses may need to be more flexible with their smaller workforce and varying liability concerns.
According to representatives at The Seltzer Law Firm and The Employment Law Group, refusal to get an employer-mandated vaccine is just like violating any other company policy, even something as simple as a dress code, and if you are fired for breaking company policy — as in the cases of Disney, Walmart and Google — you are not eligible for unemployment payments. In fact, simply refusing to show proof of vaccination could end with the same result: No benefits.
It does call into question that of long-tenured employees whose companies might have severance packages and how that might differ, if at all. One might imagine, and hope, that those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and that an employee’s long-term performance and loyalty would be taken into account.
The situation is not binary, however. Employees with legitimate, validated medical reasons for not getting the vaccine, and/or those whose refusal is a religious objection may also be addressed on an individual basis and could still receive unemployment benefits if applied for.
Employment Attorney John T. Harrington told Salenetri, “We have received numerous inquiries from clients and potential clients about how courts are likely to view these situations.” He added, “We’ve been advising them that if you have one of these two valid reasons to believe that you should be exempt from a vaccination requirement, you should assert them. But otherwise, companies are entitled to require that employees be vaccinated.”
Attorney Diane Seltzer elaborated, “In every claim for unemployment benefits, the employer has an opportunity to present the reasons for the separation. And an employer can choose not to respond. So if an employee is not truthful or not completely transparent when they apply for benefits, and the employer chooses not to contest it, the employee might get the benefits based on what they’re representing.”
Salenetri’s report also cites unemployment compensation guidelines in states like Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, where “gross misconduct” — the willful violation of a company’s rules and policies – can disqualify a worker from receiving state benefits.
“Gross misconduct is actually defined, at least in part, as an act which deliberately or willfully violates an employer’s rule,” Seltzer explained. “You can be terminated if you violate a rule, especially if it’s intentional or deliberate.”
Seltzer added that deliberately refusing to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination could certainly be deemed “gross misconduct.”
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