People quitting over vax mandate may qualify for unemployment benefits

Oct 20, 2021, 5:09 PM | Updated: Oct 21, 2021, 9:41 am
unemployment benefits...
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

While people typically tend to receive unemployment benefits only in the case of a layoff, some of the people choosing to quit their jobs over the vaccine mandate may still be eligible for unemployment.

Their eligibility, however, depends on whether they can fit into certain categories.

“The laws surrounding when someone is qualified to receive benefits are going to be intricate and complex,” said Scott Michael, legal services coordination manager at the Employment Security Department, during a meeting of the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Committee last month. “Each case always has to be decided on its own merits. Small differences in facts, in timing, in what was said, what was intended can lead to very different outcomes.”

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In Washington state, in order to get unemployment benefits after voluntarily leaving a job, a worker must show that they had “good cause” to quit. Good cause reasons to quit a job can include situations such as having to move away because of a spouse’s change in jobs, or quitting because an employer is mistreating its workers, explained Nick Demerice, director of public affairs at ESD. There are 13 good cause reasons to quit a job under Washington law.

In the case of the vaccine mandate, there are two main reasons that could potentially count as a good cause quit — having an illness or disability that prevents a person from getting the vaccine, or a sincerely held religious or moral belief.

But it is not enough to simply quit a job over the vaccine mandate and then list a medical or religious reason for doing so. Before the employee leaves, they must try to work out a compromise with their employer, such as applying for an exemption and trying to get an accommodation.

“If they were granted an exemption from their employer but were unable to be accommodated, they will likely qualify for unemployment benefits,” Demerice said.

He noted that this could include people such as state or city employees who are found to have a legitimate reason for an exemption, but still cannot fulfill their roles without interacting with members of the public.

“For instance, a firefighter or police officer who interacts directly with the public could be let go even though they were granted the exemption,” Demerice said. “Under that circumstance, it’s very likely that a person would qualify.”

However, refusing to apply for an exemption or work out any sort of agreement with an employer would likely be seen as tantamount to making no effort to keep working. Disregarding the vaccine mandate could potentially be labeled misconduct, which is reason to not receive unemployment benefits if a person is terminated.

“If they were not granted an exemption or did not seek an exemption, it would be difficult for them to receive unemployment,” Demerice said.

Even having an exemption approved from a place of work will not be enough to ensure that a person receives unemployment benefits, as ESD will be using a different set of criteria than employers’ exemption processes. A person claiming a medical exemption will need to provide a letter from a doctor confirming that they have a health condition that prevents them from getting vaccinated. A person claiming religion will need to fill out questions about their beliefs.

“We will want evidence that this is a sincerely-held religious or medical issue, that this is a consistent belief that they’ve exercised throughout their life,” Demerice said.

That could mean, for example, showing that you have refused other shots or medical treatment.

“We will want to see consistency in how they’ve approached vaccinations,” Demerice said.

However, Michael noted that ESD has no desire to start “deciding winners and losers between different religions and different moral beliefs.”

Ultimately, ESD said that each person’s scenario will be unique, and there will be no standard formula that can be broadly applied.

“It’s going to really come down to ‘it depends,’ and we have to decide each case on its own merits based on the facts that are in front of us,” Michael said.

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People quitting over vax mandate may qualify for unemployment benefits