Republican leaders support jobless benefits — for the unvaccinated

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After ending pandemic-related unemployment benefits, some Republican officials now want assistance for workers who were fired for refusing to get vaccinated.

Last spring, just weeks before a deadly surge of coronavirus delta variant cases rocked his state, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis joined several other Republican leaders across the country in ending federal pandemic-related unemployment benefits for out-of-work people in their states.

"Thanks to Governor DeSantis' leadership, Florida's economy has bounced back tremendously," Dane Eagle, secretary of the state's Department of Economic Opportunity, said in a May 24 statement announcing the move. "Transitioning away from this benefit will help meet the demands of small and large businesses who are ready to hire and expand their workforce."

Now, five months and over 21,000 COVID deaths later, DeSantis has proposed an expansion of unemployment benefits, but for a unique group: Floridians fired from their jobs for refusing to get vaccinated.

On Thursday, the governor called for a special session of the Florida Legislature to push back against President Joe Biden's new vaccine mandates, which require most federal employees and contractors as well as employees of businesses with more than 100 workers to be vaccinated for the coronavirus or undergo weekly testing.

A document shared with reporters outlined the governor's specific requests. "If someone is fired from their job for refusing an employer-required COVID-19 vaccine," it read, "then that person should be eligible for reemployment assistance." DeSantis also proposed that the state "establish a program to connect employees terminated based on COVID-19 vaccine status with other employment opportunities."

"Your right to earn a living should not be contingent upon COVID shots," DeSantis said in a Thursday press conference, where he was joined by Florida's newly appointed Surgeon General Joseph Ladopo, who shared anti-vaccine talking points.

"This idea that that we are foolish for not believing people who are telling us things that we don't have data for right now is ridiculous," Ladopo said in defense of unvaccinated Americans. "People need to continue and stick with their intuition and their sensibilities."

DeSantis is not the first Republican official to suggest that Americans fired for refusing to get vaccinated should be allowed to receive unemployment benefits. Similar provisions have been proposed by GOP lawmakers in Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, among other states, though none have garnered enough support to make their way through the state house.

In Wisconsin, Republican state Rep. Rob Brooks recently introduced "vaccine freedom" legislation that would enable any worker who is fired or quits due to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate to receive unemployment insurance, and also prevent employers from requiring proof of vaccination for their workers.

In June, Brooks notably supported legislation that would have ended the additional $300 weekly federal benefit for Wisconsinites unemployed due to the pandemic, suggesting the aid was encouraging them to stay home, though that bill was ultimately vetoed by the state's Democratic governor.

"Our economy is on the precipice of a severe downturn due to the labor shortage, limited supply of goods and services, and an increased reliance upon government," Brooks said in a statement on his vote at the time. "Many employers have increased wages and offered signing bonuses, to no avail, as they still cannot find individuals who are willing to work."

In Tennessee, state Rep. Rusty Grills introduced a similar bill on unvaccinated unemployment benefits Tuesday. In May, he voiced his support for Gov. Bill Lee (R-TN)'s decision to stop accepting federal pandemic unemployment benefits saying doing so would spur job growth. "This is very good for our business community and our whole economy," Grills said in a Facebook post. "The state website has almost 250,000 job openings listed."

Early research has shown that ending federal pandemic unemployment assistance had little impact on jobs and hiring. Many employers continue to struggle to attract workers back to the labor force, even in states that ended federal unemployment benefits early.

Asked why the officials now support expanding unemployment insurance for the unvaccinated given their previous stances on federal pandemic benefits, representatives for Brooks and Grills did not respond. Christina Pushaw, DeSantis' press secretary, said the governor's point is "very simple," though she did not address his previous decision to end federal pandemic benefits.

"If an individual is terminated for cause or makes the choice to resign from a job, that person would be ineligible for unemployment," Pushaw told The American Independent Foundation in an email. "The governor’s position is that 'get this shot or lose your job' is not, in fact, a free choice. Being forced out of a job due to noncompliance with a vaccine mandate should not equate to being fired for cause. Therefore, workers in that situation should be eligible for reemployment assistance."

Traditionally, out-of-work employees can only collect unemployment benefits in certain situations: if they're laid off, quit for "good cause," or are fired for a reason that's not "misconduct." Remaining unvaccinated in a workplace with a vaccine mandate wouldn't fall into one of those categories.

"I think the consensus is very strong that employers are within their rights to protect workplace safety, and employees are not within their rights to refuse to comply," Anne Paxton, an attorney and policy director at the Unemployment Law Project, told CNBC.

But whether or not someone qualifies for unemployment benefits is usually up to the discretion of state labor agencies, meaning workers in states more sympathetic to the unvaccinated may be able to collect benefits even without legislative changes. The Texas Workforce Commission, for example, said in a newsletter earlier this year that employees terminated for refusing to comply with vaccine mandates "may" be eligible for benefits "depending on the facts of the case."

Despite stringent GOP pushback and fear-mongering about mass resignations, vaccine mandates have thus far proven highly effective at increasing vaccination rates among key constituencies. Across industries, unvaccinated workers have been mostly complying with mandates, with the proportion of employees quitting over mandates remaining quite low.

"Based on the evidence we have so far, the experiences we have seen, [imposing a vaccine mandate] does seem to improve vaccine coverage in those populations," Dr. Benjamin Lopman, an epidemiologist at Emory University, told the American Independent Foundation.

He stressed that vaccination benefits not just the person receiving the shot, but everyone they come into contact with, and as such any policy that enables employees to avoid a mandate ultimately hurts the goal of increasing the vaccination rate and ending the pandemic.

"Vaccines don't just affect us as individuals, they also protect the community of people who we come into contact with," Lopman said. "It's not just an individual decision, it affects our entire community."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.