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Lost your job for not getting vaccinated? You still probably won't qualify for unemployment

But four states have new laws extending benefits to those who don't comply with vaccine requirements.

cash funds running out of money change dollars wallet empty
Vaccine requirements could make you ineligible for jobless aid if you don't have a legitimate exemption. 
Sarah Tew/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

Employees who don't comply with their company's vaccine requirements will generally be ineligible to collect unemployment benefits, but that's changing in a few states: Iowa, Tennessee, Florida and Kansas.  

As vaccination mandates continue to sweep across the US on both a federal and state level, so too have multiple legal challenges. Last month, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked President Joe Biden's far-reaching vaccine mandate for large private employers, causing the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration to suspend the requirement pending further litigation. And this week, the national vaccine mandate for health care workers, which was set to begin Dec. 6, was halted after a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction. 

Though qualifying for unemployment after you've been fired or resigned from a job due to a vaccine mandate is still an evolving issue -- and largely determined case by case -- four Republican-led states have taken measures to extend benefits to employees who refuse the vaccine. Other states have an entirely different approach. For example, New York explicitly disqualifies health care workers from unemployment benefits if they quit or are terminated for not adhering to vaccination requirements. 

"Because each state has its own unemployment insurance law, cases with the same facts could have opposite outcomes in two different states," said Jacob Korder, a labor and employment attorney in New York. And though employers are required by law to provide certain vaccine exemptions, namely for medical or religious reasons, those are also being interpreted differently by state. 

Some 5% of unvaccinated workers in the US have already left their job over mandates. Multiple studies demonstrate that COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective in preventing severe illness and death and remain a critical tool to help bring the pandemic under control. Will you still qualify for unemployment insurance if you turn down a shot? We'll explain how refusing to get vaccinated could impact your eligibility for jobless benefits. 

What is unemployment insurance?

Unemployment insurance, or UI, is a state-federal program designed to provide temporary income support for individuals who lose their job through no fault of their own. UI benefits are overseen by the federal government, but each state administers its own unemployment program and sets requirements for eligibility.

Who qualifies to collect unemployment insurance?

In normal times, according to the Department of Labor, you're eligible for UI benefits if you:

  1. Lose your job through no fault of your own.
  2. Meet the work and wage requirements established by your state, as well as any additional state requirements.

In most cases, you'll be denied UI if you quit your job without "good cause" or if you were discharged for misconduct or lack of compliance with employer policies.

Can you collect unemployment if you're fired for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine?

Not in most states, because if you're dismissed for refusing the COVID vaccine, that would be considered being fired "for cause."

"The whole idea of unemployment insurance is to tide people over for being put out of work for reasons not of their own causing," said Thomas Kohler, law professor at Boston College. "If you have been dismissed for cause, you don't get unemployment insurance. So, of course, the big question then becomes: What constitutes cause?"

Each state sets its own definition of "for cause." And since there hasn't yet been a legal precedent or case law that attorneys, applicants and employers can use to guide future conduct, many legal experts maintain that unemployment claims will be determined on a case by case.

What other legal issues are at play?

The key question lawyers are confronting is whether employer-mandated vaccinations are a reasonable workplace policy in the first place. Can the government, either state or federal, mandate private employers to set vaccine requirements for their employees? What about for public employees?

"I think most of the time you're going to find that the policies are deemed reasonable because of the amount of scientific literature suggesting that vaccines are safe," Eliot Rushovich, managing partner at Rise Law Firm in Los Angeles, told CNET back in October. 

But state lawmakers "have widely diverse views on vaccine mandates," noted David Mallen, a partner representing the Employee Law Group in Torrance, California. And those views seem to run on partisan lines. "It's become a political issue more than a health or legal issue," according to Darren Rumack, a partner at the Klein Law Group in New York City. 

When the federal vaccine mandate was announced in July, Republican legislators immediately started pushing back, introducing laws to ban vaccination requirements or to make discrimination based on vaccine status illegal. Numerous lawsuits against the government's mandate prevented large parts of it from being enforced across the country.

That said, even if a state doesn't enact a vaccine mandate, a private employer still could -- except in states that explicitly forbid companies to require a vaccinated workforce. "Unless a state passes a law that says otherwise, even if a court prohibits the government from requiring private employers to mandate vaccines for their employees, private employers can still choose to do so," Korder said. 

In recent months, however, private employers have become more reluctant to establish a vaccine mandate, according to Rumack. "I see a bit more hesitancy to actually put these vaccine mandates into effect, both due to the labor shortages that we're seeing now and all the legal uncertainty over it," he said. 

Which states now allow workers to collect UI if they don't comply with vaccine mandates? 

Iowa, Tennessee, Florida and Kansas are now making unemployment benefits available for those who are fired for refusing to get the vaccine. The amended unemployment laws only apply to those defying employers' vaccine rules, not for violating any other company policy. Many of the GOP-led states considering similar legislation were among those that cut off all federal unemployment programs prematurely during the summer.

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Many employers are requiring proof of vaccination to continue working. 

Pacific Press/Getty Images

What about medical, religious or other exemptions?

If you have a valid medical or religious reason for not getting vaccinated, you may be able to receive UI benefits, even if you quit or are fired. That's because employers must provide such exemptions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (which covers religious beliefs) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (which covers medical reasons). The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the administrative entity that enforces anti-discrimination laws, offers guidance on the issue.

However, if you qualify for an exemption for a disability or a deeply held religious belief, an employer could have a defense against paying unemployment "if it can show that accommodating a religious view would be an undue hardship," Kohler said. 

And requests for exemptions aren't guaranteed. "No major religion's doctrine prohibits vaccinations," said Jack Tuckner, women's rights in the workplace attorney and founding partner of Tuckner, Sipser, Weinstock & Sisper. He also noted that medical exemptions are "a challenging uphill battle" given the CDC's opinion that "the only people who shouldn't get vaccinated are those who had a severe allergic reaction, e.g., anaphylaxis, immediately after a first vaccine dose or to a component of the COVID-19 vaccine."

The new laws in Iowa, Kansas, Florida and Tennessee make it easier to claim medical and religious exemptions. And in Florida, an employee will be able to opt out of getting vaccinated based on a variety of exemptions, including demonstrating "immunity" or agreeing to periodic testing. In Iowa and Tennessee, employees are eligible to collect UI if they refuse the vaccine, without having to claim any exemption at all.

How do I apply for benefits if I was fired for not getting vaccinated?

If your state has mandated a vaccination requirement for your industry and you're fired for refusing to comply, you might not be eligible. You'll want to check if there's an exemption you qualify for based on state or company law. You can apply for benefits by filing a claim with your state's unemployment insurance program. You can find the contact information to start your claim here

If you do apply for unemployment benefits and the employer challenges your claim, you will likely end up in court. As such, you should contact an attorney to pursue a claim or file an appeal.