Kansas Pushes to Pay Workers Unemployment Benefits if Fired for Not Getting COVID Vaccine

Kansas plans to provide unemployment benefits to workers who are fired for refusing to comply with the federal COVID-19 vaccination mandates imposed by President Joe Biden, the Associated Press reported. The financial protection for fired workers is part of a larger push against the requirement and goes hand in hand with another measure that would make it easy to obtain religious exemptions from the mandate.

Republican lawmakers in the GOP-controlled legislature passed the bill late Monday that includes both the exemption and unemployment safeguards. Democratic Governor Laura Kelly angered fellow party members when she promised that she would sign the legislation if it landed on her desk, but did not explain why Monday night and ignored reporters' questions at a holiday event Tuesday, the AP reported.

The legislation would effectively force employers to give religious exemptions to any worker who files a written request and bars them from questioning the request. The measure for unemployment benefits also eventually gained support among a group of initially divided Republican leaders.

Some conservatives also argued that other measures, such as barring private businesses from requiring vaccination, should also be included, but GOP leaders vowed to cover other issues beginning in January, according to the AP.

"Many of us here tonight wanted a lot more, but this is a victory for liberty and the patriots standing tall across Kansas," said Republican Senator Mike Thompson, a conservative from the Kansas City suburb of Shawnee.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Kansas Worker Financial Protections
Kansas lawmakers are aiming to financially protect workers who refuse to get vaccinated. Will Lawrence, left, chief of staff for Kansas Governor Laura Kelly, confers with Senate President Ty Masterson, right, R-Andover, and other lawmakers and legislative staffers after negotiations between the House and Senate on legislation responding to federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas. John Hanna/AP Photo

Republican lawmakers passed the measure after forcing Kelly to call the Legislature into a special session when it had adjourned in May and wasn't set to reconvene until January.

The votes Monday night were 24-11 in the Senate and 77-34 in the House. Many GOP lawmakers argued that vaccine-refusing workers couldn't wait until January or later for the Legislature to act.

"It is well past the time that we do something," said Senator Alicia Straub, an Ellinwood Republican. "The people are begging of us to do something."

Kansas lawmakers debated the measure with new COVID-19 cases on the rise. Kansas averaged 1,201 new cases, 26 additional hospitalizations and four additional deaths a day for the seven days ending Monday, according to state health department data. The federal government reported that 54.3 percent of its population was fully vaccinated, compared with the national figure of 59.2 percent.

Across the U.S., Republican governors, state attorneys general and lawmakers pursued ways to resist the Biden mandates. Iowa enacted a law last month extending unemployment benefits to workers who refuse to get vaccinated, and provisions in the Kansas legislation were inspired by measures enacted last week in Florida.

One question is whether such state laws can be enforced because federal law is supreme.

Supporters argued that the Kansas measure would stand because it wouldn't conflict with Biden's mandates, which allow for religious exemptions. But some business owners and the Kansas Chamber were skeptical. They worried that businesses would be caught between conflicting state and federal mandates.

"You're going to make a wrong decision, no matter what," said Alan Rupe, a Wichita attorney who represents companies in employment law cases.

Many Democrats saw the bill as a largely symbolic measure that offers little real protection to workers who want to resist vaccine mandates.

They said the federal lawsuits will determine whether Biden's mandates will stand, and if they do, state laws will be void. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican seeking to oust Kelly in next year's governor's race, has brought Kansas into three multi-state lawsuits.

Some Democrats also were upset that top Republicans told GOP lawmakers ahead of the Legislature's final votes that Kelly was expected to sign the measure — before Democrats heard from her or her office.

Representative John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, called the bill "a bad bargain," and Senator David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat, suggested the measure showed that apparently "people don't avoid the plague anymore."

Kelly faces a difficult re-election campaign next year, and her presumed Republican opponent, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, has brought Kansas into three multi-state lawsuits. Schmidt called the measure "a welcome companion to our ongoing legal efforts."

The Kansas Chamber argued that neither the state nor the federal government should impose mandates. It also objected to provisions in the bill that impose fines of up to $50,000 per violation when employers don't grant a religious exemption to workers who ask for them.

"What business owner wants to raise their hand in the air and say, 'Fine me'?" said Eric Stafford, a chamber lobbyist.

The measure says religious exemptions cover beliefs that aren't tied to a belief in God but simply a strong moral objection. Some critics saw it as a huge loophole allowing bogus claims of religious objections, but supporters said neither government nor employers should judge someone's beliefs.

Kansas Unemployment Benefits
Kansas plans to provide unemployment benefits to workers who are fired for refusing to comply with the federal COVID-19 vaccination mandates imposed by President Joe Biden. State Senator Ethan Corson, D-Prairie Village, watches the Senate voting on a bill aimed at providing financial protections to workers who refuse to comply with COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas. John Hanna/AP Photo