At least five Republican-led states have extended unemployment benefits to people who’ve lost jobs over vaccine mandates – and a smattering of others may soon follow.
Workers who quit or are fired for cause – including for defying company policy – are generally ineligible for jobless benefits. But Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee have carved out exceptions for those who won’t submit to the multi-shot coronavirus vaccine regimens that many companies now require. Similar ideas have been floated in Wyoming, Wisconsin and Missouri.
Critics contend that these states are incentivizing people to skip shots that public health experts say offer the best line of defense against the coronavirus. Business leaders and industry groups have argued against the rule changes because, they say, companies would shoulder much of the costs. And the efforts are playing out as the Biden administration is pressing immunization rules for private companies and as coronavirus cases are surging again because of the fast-spreading omicron variant.
Observers say it’s a mark of the politicization of the coronavirus – with fights flaring over business closures, mask mandates and more – and how it has scrambled state politics and altered long-held positions. It wasn’t long ago, they note, that two dozen Republican-led states moved to restrict unemployment aid to compel residents to return to the workforce and ease labor shortages.
These governors, who are using the unemployment insurance system in a moment of political theater to make a statement about the vaccine mandate, are the same folks who turned off unemployment benefits early for millions of workers over the summer,” said Rebecca Dixon, the executive director of the left-leaning National Employment Law Project. Arkansas, Iowa, Tennessee and Florida cut federal unemployment aid in June.
But backers insist that Americans should be able to decide for themselves whether to get vaccinated. Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, R, has broadly criticized vaccine mandates as ineffective and unfair, at one point tweeting: “Kansans have made it clear that they choose freedom over Faucism” – a play on the name of the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, Anthony Fauci, whose masking and vaccination guidance during the pandemic has made him a target for the right.
Masterson also has brushed aside concerns the rule changes would lead to a rush of unemployment claims could drain the state’s unemployment insurance fund and weigh on businesses.
“To have a hit on the fund, you have to have an employer that is denying the medical and individual rights of the employee, and firing them for it,” Masterson said. “Simple solution: Don’t do that.”
The rule changes is one among multiple state measures seeking to undermine President Biden’s vaccine mandate, experts say. His vaccine-or-test requirement for businesses with at least 100 employees and a separate vaccine mandate for health-care workers have been mired in legal challenges. The issue will get a hearing before the Supreme Court next month.
It’s unclear how many workplaces mandate inoculations. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey from October found that about a quarter of the respondents reported that their employers had a vaccination requirement. As of December, at least 2,640 of the nation’s 6,000 hospitals had some form of a vaccine requirement, according to data maintained by the American Hospital Association. That’s about 44 percent, up from about 41 percent in October.