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Terminated for refusing vaccine? Unlikely to collect unemployment, attorneys say

Attorneys trained in labor law told PolitiFact that workers who lose their jobs due to non-compliance with an employers’ vaccine requirement are unlikely to be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Laws do vary from state to state and benefit applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis, so mileage may vary. Generally, though, there is a burden on individuals to show that they are out of work through no fault of their own in order to collect unemployment benefits.

In June, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit filed by employees of a Houston, Texas hospital system over a vaccine requirement. It was reported that 153 Houston Methodist Hospital system employees either resigned or were terminated for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“An employer is generally free to hire or fire for whatever reason that they say, including vaccine status,” Matt Steffey, a law professor at the Mississippi College School of Law, told the Clarion Ledger.

Professor Matt Steffey currently teaches Criminal Law, Evidence, Admiralty, Law & Literature, and a Supreme Court seminar at Mississippi College School of Law. (credit: MC School of Law)

Steffey likened a vaccine requirement to an education requirement. While individuals are not obligated to earn a college degree, some employment opportunities will be unavailable as a result.

Federal EEOC laws also would not prevent an employer from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, with some exceptions:

An employee who does not get vaccinated due to a disability (covered by the ADA) or a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance (covered by Title VII) may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation that does not pose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business. For example, as a reasonable accommodation, an unvaccinated employee entering the workplace might wear a face mask, work at a social distance from co-workers or non-employees, work a modified shift, get periodic tests for COVID-19, be given the opportunity to telework, or finally, accept a reassignment.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Additionally, while vaccination status is considered confidential medical information under the ADA, the laws do not prevent employers from requiring employees to bring in documentation or other confirmation of vaccination; just that they are kept confidential and separate from personnel files.

The EEOC recently released guidance on employment discrimination laws, and the DOJ’s opinion on vaccine requirement conditions for employment as well as education and receipt of services would seem to indicate that business owners choosing to enact vaccination policies would be in a strong position in the event suits are filed against them. 

One thing is certain, with passionate views around the vaccine on both sides and infection rates blowing by previous record highs, the vaccine has not seen its last day in court.