Can People Fired for Refusing COVID Vaccine Still Get Unemployment?

Employees across the country are losing their jobs because they won't get vaccinated against COVID-19, and receiving unemployment benefits depends on the reason the worker was let go and where the person is.

Federal, state and local governments have started implementing vaccine mandates for certain employees, bucking criticism of government overreach and calls for testing options. Individual businesses have also decided to require vaccines.

People who lose their job over a vaccine mandate are generally considered ineligible for unemployment benefits because they failed to comply with company policy, but there are exceptions. State departments of labor decide who should and shouldn't receive unemployment benefits, and some officials are looking to compensate people who were fired because of a vaccine mandate.

Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin have introduced legislation that would allow employees who refuse a COVID-19 vaccine to receive unemployment benefits.

In Tennessee, employees who refuse vaccination aren't always considered to have engaged in misconduct and could be eligible for unemployment benefits if vaccine mandates are a new policy. This creates a situation where employers "substantially changed the terms of the hiring agreement," according to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and therefore wouldn't automatically disqualify vaccine-hesitant employees from receiving financial compensation.

Employees in Texas also may be eligible for benefits, the Texas Workforce Commission wrote in a newsletter sent out at the beginning of the year.

covid vaccine unemployment
People who refuse a COVID-19 vaccine are generally not going to be eligible for unemployment benefits if fired, but there could be exceptions. Above, protesters holding signs take part in a rally against vaccine mandates in Santa Monica, California, on August 29. Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images

While COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employment are taking center stage, it's not the first time vaccination as a condition of employment has faced pushback. In 2014, a New Jersey appeals court ruled in favor of a nurse who sought to collect unemployment after she was fired for refusing to receive a flu vaccine out of personal conviction.

The appeals court said the state's labor department violated the nurse's "freedom of expression" by refusing to pay her unemployment benefits.

While employees nationwide aren't guaranteed unemployment payments when fired for refusing a vaccine, a person terminated or suspended without pay after receiving a medical or religious exemption could be entitled to payments.

The Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD) noted that cases will be evaluated on an individual basis and that the reason an employee didn't comply with the vaccine policy will be a factor in whether the person's claim is approved. Other factors include when the employer adopted the requirement and specific terms of the policy.

Nick Demerice, an ESD spokesperson, told The Seattle Times a firefighter could be eligible for unemployment benefits if the person was granted an exemption but was terminated because the department couldn't find a job that separated the firefighter from the public.

Receiving unemployment benefits also depends on how an employee's separation from the company is classified. A person who is terminated for cause or who quits is often ineligible for benefits, but a person who is laid off is likely to have the benefits claim approved. At least one Seattle-based union is asking its employer to classify vaccine mandate–related terminations as a layoff, increasing an employee's chances of receiving financial assistance, according to The Seattle Times.

States have flexibility when enforcing unemployment insurance laws and can provide unemployment to employees who quit with "good cause." However, the definition of good cause often varies, and given that vaccines have shown to be safe, the good cause argument likely wouldn't fly, said Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

Even in the case of termination after a religious or medical exemption is granted, an employee could have the claim denied, and since departments evaluate cases individually, an influx in claims could cause delays in decisions being made.