Only a few months after terminating federal pandemic unemployment benefits early, several GOP-led states are now expanding jobless payments to a different group of people affected by Covid-19: unvaccinated residents who are losing their jobs due to vaccine mandates.
At least three red states – Iowa, Tennessee and Florida – have recently passed laws extending eligibility to these folks as part of broader measures restricting employer vaccine mandates.
Kansas’ GOP-led legislature approved a similar bill that Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, recently signed. And in Arkansas, which is controlled by Republicans, a law curtailing vaccine mandates will take effect in January.
Other states, including Wyoming and Wisconsin, have looked into such provisions, and more are expected to consider similar legislation when lawmakers return to their capitols in January.
States need to approve these unemployment benefits measures because workers typically don’t qualify if they quit their jobs voluntarily or are dismissed for violating company policies.
Employers have significant authority to impose a range of mandates on their workers, said Jared Walczak, vice president of state projects at the right-leaning Tax Foundation. Noncompliance is grounds for dismissal.
More than half of employers are requiring or will mandate their staff to be vaccinated, according to a recent survey by Willis Towers Watson, a consulting firm. Large employers, including United Airlines, Ford and Tyson Foods, have instituted the requirement for some or all of their workers.
The Biden administration has announced Covid-19 vaccine mandates for federal employees and contractors, along with larger employers and health care providers that participate in Medicare and Medicaid. Those efforts, however, are embroiled in legal challenges.
Several states and municipalities have also issued vaccine mandates for their public workforces, as well as for certain private employers, such as hospitals, nursing homes and day cares. And many of these employees won’t qualify for jobless benefits if they don’t adhere to the directive.
For instance, workers in New York’s health care facilities, nursing homes and schools who voluntarily leave or are terminated for refusing to comply with employer-mandated vaccination requirements will be deemed ineligible for unemployment compensation absent a valid request for accommodation, the state Department of Labor said in its FAQ.
But those who have no public exposure at work and have a compelling reason for refusing to comply may be able to sign up for jobless payments, the state said.
Governors and state officials who are fighting the vaccine mandates say they are looking out for their residents.
“This legislation also gives employees the assurance that they will still receive unemployment benefits despite being fired for standing up for their beliefs,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, said in a statement after signing the bill in late October.
Some states are also protecting the unemployed who encounter vaccine mandates in their job searches.
In Kansas, for instance, the new law allows those who decline a job offer because their exemption request was denied to remain on unemployment, said Jenna Brofsky, senior associate at Husch Blackwell, a law firm. Typically, those who turn down employment lose their eligibility.
Employers, however, will likely have to foot the bill for expanding benefits, which has raised some concern in the business community. Typically, employers’ state unemployment tax rate rises when their laid-off workers receive jobless payments.
The laws were passed very quickly, and there wasn’t a lot of time to evaluate all of the impacts, said Douglas Holmes, president of UWC - Strategic Services on Unemployment & Workers’ Compensation, which represents employers on public policy issues.
Also, while states have different unemployment benefits’ eligibility rules, the measures encroach on businesses’ prerogatives to set their own employment policies, Walczak said.
“Down the road, it may clash with federal requirements on those employers where they are forced to pay out benefits despite their hands being tied by federal rules,” he said.
Cutting benefits for some, expanding them for others
Not too long ago, Florida, Tennessee, Iowa and Arkansas were focused on curtailing benefits for the unemployed. All four were among the two dozen states that ended at least one of Congress’ three pandemic unemployment compensation programs early, citing labor shortages.
The idea was that terminating the federal benefits would push people to return to the workforce. Millions of laid-off Americans lost some or all of their support.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee tweeted on Tuesday: “By moving on from pandemic unemployment benefits, our state has accelerated economic recovery & helped thousands of Tennesseans get back to work.”
His office did not return a request seeking comment on the new law that expands eligibility for jobless payments.
The states’ latest moves are “pretty rich,” said Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at the left-leaning Century Foundation.
“Generally Republican governors are very strict when it comes to unemployment benefits and people following the rules,” said Stettner, who analyzed the impact of the early terminations on the jobless. “They were the ones rushing to cut off benefits, and now they want to get more people to have benefits – workers who are refusing the vaccines.”
Weakening the vaccine mandates and protecting those who lose their jobs for violating the directives seems like “pretty bad, counterproductive policy,” said Stan Veuger, senior fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
“It pays people to not get vaccinated,” he said. “To the extent that we would like for (the pandemic) to end, this doesn’t help.”