Kansas GOP Proposes Those Fired Over COVID Vaccine Mandate Be Eligible for Unemployment

Conservative Kansas legislators pushed for those who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine to be eligible for unemployment benefits at a special session Monday.

The Associated Press reported that the GOP-controlled legislature opened the session to discuss workers claiming religious exemptions to President Joe Biden's vaccine mandates.

Republican leaders in the state Senate included the unemployment proposal in the same bill as the religious exemption proposal. However, House Republicans were unsure about it, so they left it out of the legislation. House and Senate negotiators will draft the final version of the bill Monday or Tuesday.

There is bipartisan concern that granting unemployment benefits to people refusing the vaccine will lead to an increase in the state tax that funds unemployment.

There is also no current estimate on how much this proposal would cost the state. According to AP, business groups have suggested it could be hundreds of millions of dollars.

However, supporters of the bill say the number will be closer to zero due to the companion proposal on religious exemptions. The proposal says religious exemptions must be granted without the religious beliefs being scrutinized and there are hefty fines for rejecting them. The bill's supporters say people will seek the exemptions knowing they will be granted, so they won't lose their jobs or need unemployment benefits.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Ty Masterson, Republican, Kansas, State Senate
Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson is the author of proposals aimed at financially protecting workers who refuse to get vaccinated. Above, Masterson makes a point during a legislative committee hearing on federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates at the Statehouse on November 12, 2021, in Topeka. John Hanna/AP Photo

Kansas' special legislative session comes as Republican governors, state attorneys general and lawmakers are pursuing ways to push back against the Biden mandates. Iowa enacted a law last month extending unemployment benefits to workers who refuse to get vaccinated.

Although vaccine mandates from private companies and local officials have boosted inoculation rates, GOP officials across the U.S. see Biden's mandates as violating personal liberties.

Democratic Governor Laura Kelly opposes Biden's mandates but didn't publicly embrace specific proposals ahead of the special session. Her administration is handling questions about whether unvaccinated workers receive unemployment benefits case by case.

Critics of the bill have predicted abuses of the religious exemption. Rabbi Moti Rieber, the executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, said the policy would allow people with political objections to falsely claim religious ones.

"Opposition to the public health is the religion," he said. "Trumpism is the religion."

Republicans who drafted the language said it's broad enough to cover beliefs that aren't tied to a belief in God but simply a strong moral objection.

"So it's basically your belief is akin to a religious belief, right?" Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, told fellow GOP senators. "Whether I believe that this vaccine will damage me as much as I believe Jesus Christ rose from the dead."

One question is whether such a state law can be enforced because federal law is supreme. A mandate from Biden for workers at companies with 100 or more employees allows workers to opt for regular COVID-19 testing instead, and it permits "reasonable accommodations" for "sincerely held" religious beliefs.

Supporters argue that the Kansas measure on religious exemptions wouldn't conflict with Biden's mandate and would withstand a possible court challenge. They argue that the proposal merely gives more guidance to businesses.

But the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business had strong doubts.

They fear businesses would face a choice: Comply with state law and face federal government fines or follow the federal mandate and get sued in state court.

"It certainly is a very tough place to be," said Chuck Grier, president and CEO of UCI, an industrial construction company.

Topeka, Kansas, statehouse, capitol
Kansas state legislators called a special session Monday to discuss a bill involving religious exemptions to President Joe Biden's COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The lawmakers added a proposal to the bill that would make people who refuse to get the vaccine eligible for unemployment benefits. Above, interior views of the Capitol dome and main lobby of the Kansas Statehouse on March 16, 2015, in Topeka. Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images