WASHINGTON — Individuals across the United States are working to navigate this newest phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which vaccines are readily available but the rapidly spreading Delta variant is ravaging communities.
Vaccination rates are slowly increasing, but a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found there are still millions of Americans who would only get vaccinated against COVID-19 if it was required. Some companies, like Disney, Google and Walmart, have decided to lend a hand in pushing up vaccination rates by requiring certain employees to show proof of vaccination.
On September 9th, President Joe Biden signed two executive orders: one requiring all federal workers and contractors to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or face weekly testing, the other requiring companies with more than 100 employees to either require vaccines or weekly testing.
Some who refuse may be looking forward to the support of unemployment benefits while they look for a new job that doesn't require vaccines. But, for many of them, that might not be an option.
If your employer requires proof of a COVID vaccine, and you refuse and are fired, can you be denied unemployment benefits?
- Diane Seltzer, Principal, The Seltzer Law Firm
- John T. Harrington, Principal, The Employment Law Group
Yes. In most areas of the United States, if you are fired for breaking a company policy, you are not eligible for unemployment benefits and payments.
WHAT WE FOUND
Unemployment payments are afforded to Americans who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. When a business closes or issues mass layoffs, the people who are let go are often eligible for weekly benefits.
However, someone fired for breaking a company policy, big or small, can be denied benefits, employment attorney John T. Harrington explains.
"Even something as simple as a dress code that says you have to wear a tie, and that's the company's policy, and you say, 'I don't believe in wearing a tie, so I'm not going to do it.' That's insubordination," Harrington said. "It's misconduct, and it would likely disqualify you from receiving unemployment benefits."
If a company's vaccination policy, and the repercussions for breaking that policy, are made clear to employees, the reason for disqualification is the same as if they had broken any other company rule. This is also dependent on whether the person filing for unemployment is honest about their termination and whether the company cares enough to verify it.
"In every claim for unemployment benefits, the employer has an opportunity to present the reasons for the separation. And an employer can choose not to respond," attorney Diane Seltzer said. "So if an employee is not truthful or not completely transparent when they apply for benefits, and the employer chooses not to contest it, the employee might get the benefits based on what they're representing."
Harrington said there are really only two ways to avoid a vaccination requirement: a medical or religious exemption. In both cases, he said exemptions are determined with employers on a case-by-case basis. One employee with a religious exemption in a company does not mean the rules change for anyone else.
"We have received numerous inquiries from clients and potential clients about how courts are likely to view these situations," Harrington says, "we've been advising them that if you have one of these two valid reasons to believe that you should be exempt from a vaccination requirement, you should assert them. But otherwise, companies are entitled to require that employees be vaccinated."
In Washington, D.C., the Office of Unemployment Compensation lists being fired for "gross misconduct" as a reason someone would be disqualified from receiving benefits. Maryland state code also lists "gross misconduct" as a disqualifying factor.
"Gross Misconduct is actually defined, at least in part, as an act which deliberately or willfully violates an employer's rule," Seltzer explains. "You can be terminated if you violate a rule, especially if it's intentional or deliberate."
Willfully refusing a vaccination for COVID-19 after your employer mandates it would qualify as "gross misconduct," Seltzer said.
In Virginia, you can be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits if a Virginia Employment Commission deputy assigned to your application determines that you were "fired from your job for misconduct in connection with your work."
So we can Verify that in many states, you can be denied unemployment insurance benefits if you are fired for refusing a vaccine required by your employer.