Workers who refuse to get COVID-19 vaccines after their employers mandate them could be denied unemployment benefits, attorneys say.
With healthcare organizations largely leading the way on mandates, especially after the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this month, that means healthcare workers will be among some of the first to test the system.
"It's something we're watching closely," said Walter Foster, a member Eckert Seamans' labor and employment law group. "Everything, particularly about the vaccine mandate policies, is new for everybody."
Unemployment standards vary by state, which means decisions on who is entitled to unemployment benefits will be decided on a case-by-case and state-by-state basis, Foster said.
Some state laws, such as in Massachusetts, say a person only qualifies for unemployment benefits if they are out of work through no fault of their own. In other cases, such as in Indiana, a worker can be denied benefits if they were let go for failing to follow a workplace policy, Foster said.
"It's a very unknown territory but it comes with great risk to employees," Foster said.
As long as the vaccine mandates are considered reasonable and medical and religious exemptions are allowed, unemployment benefits can be denied. Employers are likely to design their worker vaccination rules with that in mind, Foster said.
There may be cases when a standard generally considered reasonable might be unreasonable for some workers, however, said David Gerstenfeld, acting director of the Oregon Employment Department. That would entail state reviews of individual cases, he said.
"In broad strokes, requiring somebody to be vaccinated during the midst of a worldwide pandemic is a reasonable policy. So, if somebody doesn't follow that policy and they don't have a good reason, it very well could result in their not being eligible for benefits," Gerstenfeld said during a press conference last week. There are exceptions, but they are "pretty narrow," he said.
When their claims are denied, former employees can challenge the decisions in court, which could be time -consuming and expensive, Foster said. Some employers may try to defend their mandates in court to avoid paying unemployment benefits, Foster said.
In the handful of states requiring vaccinations for some or all healthcare workers, such as California and New York, employees who refuse inoculations likely won't qualify for unemployment benefits because the states' rules give credence to the employers' policys, Foster said.
Workers in states that have banned vaccine mandates would likely be eligible for benefits if their employers impose such a requirement in spite of state law, said Steve Bell, a partner at law firm Dorsey and Whitney.
"It's a murky area for employers," Bell said. "It's particularly difficult when the employer has an employment force that stretches across different states."
In some cases, such as at the University of Maryland Medical System, employees are not terminated but are instead considered to have resigned if they don't come into compliance with vaccine mandates. Under the Baltimore-based health system's policy, workers have until Oct. 1 to get fully vaccinated or receive an exemption or deferral. Those who don't meet that deadline will go on unpaid administrative leave before ultimately being designated as resigned if they still refuse to be immunized.
People who resign from a position typically cannot receive jobless benefits, Foster said. Although it likely will be disputed that workers actually resigned in those cases, those employees would nevertheless be in violation of a company policy, which could be grounds of forfeiting unemployment benefits, he said.
"Whether you call if a resignation or otherwise, at the end of the day, they did violate that policy," Foster said.