As the Delta COVID variant spreads, an increasing number of employers are requiring employees to be vaccinated. As we’ve seen in some high-profile examples, non-compliance has led to employees either getting fired or quitting their jobs to avoid the jab. But does that mean they’re still entitled to unemployment benefits? The short answer is no, as the law favors employers when it comes to vaccines. Here’s what you need to know.
Refusing the vaccine is grounds for termination
According to USA Today, a recent U.S. Justice Department legal opinion confirms that private companies have a legal right to mandate COVID vaccines, provided that they don’t violate existing state and federal laws, which you can check here. That means if your company’s policy now requires a vaccination, and you don’t get one, you can be fired and made ineligible to receive unemployment money. You also wouldn’t qualify if you quit your job just because you didn’t want to get vaccinated.
You need a good reason to collect unemployment
Typically, to collect unemployment benefits, you must be out of work through no fault of your own, like a round of layoffs at your company, for instance. You don’t qualify for unemployment if you were fired for misconduct, and this can include violating your company’s new vaccine policy. (It’s worth mentioning here that in some states you can still collect unemployment if you were fired for less severe reasons, like simply not being good at your job.)
The only exception to this is something known as “good cause.” This is where you basically reverse-fire your employer for valid reasons, like unsafe work conditions, lack of payment, or discrimination. In many states, “good cause” can include discrimination on the basis of religion or disability. In that case, a claim could proceed if your employer didn’t provide reasonable accommodation before you quit or were fired (like working from home or other social distancing measures).
However, these accommodations can’t cause an “undue hardship” on the employer, either. In that case, an employer could argue that refusing a vaccine prevents you from doing your job effectively, that you’re a health risk to other employees. Plus, you would need to provide documentation to prove that you can’t get a vaccine for a legitimate medical or religious reason, and that your employer has violated your rights. From a legal standpoint, it would be an uphill battle.
As employment attorney Joshua Van Kampen explains in a Yahoo! interview, don’t expect to find lawyers who would be willing to sue an employer for a vaccine requirement: “I have yet to come across a valid religious objection to taking a vaccine. I think people are becoming surprised to know they don’t have a lot of legal options.”
Don’t expect unemployment benefits if you violate your company’s mandatory vaccination policy, as that will be considered grounds for termination. Technically, you could qualify for medical or religious exemption, but that would be very difficult to prove. Since these policies are becoming the norm, your best bet is to simply get the vaccine.