Will healthcare workers who decline the vaccine be eligible for unemployment?

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

Protests continue in the lead-up to vaccination deadlines set by St. Luke’s, St. Alphonsus, and Primary Health, but if nothing changes between now and September, will employees who are fired for not getting the COVID-19 vaccine be eligible for unemployment benefits? 

John Rumel, Professor of Law, University of Idaho
Source: uidaho.edu

It depends, but it will likely be an uphill battle for claimants, said John Rumel, a University of Idaho College of Law professor who teaches workplace law.

“When a person is let go, Idaho law looks at employment and typically asks whether they’ve engaged in misconduct,” Rumel told Idaho Reports on Thursday,  adding that misconduct is more nuanced than blatant, criminal acts like stealing from the employer.

“An employer can show that misconduct occurred because the employee failed to comply with reasonable rules of the employer,” Rumel said.

That leads to the question of what’s considered reasonable, and whether requiring a vaccine falls into that category. Rumel said the definition of “reasonable” is broad in Idaho. Furthermore, the health care systems approached their new policies with caution by giving employees time to decide whether they would get vaccinated. 

“The policy isn’t a blanket policy. It does allow for a couple of specific exceptions,” he added. Those exemptions include sincerely held religious beliefs and medical reasons. It would be up to the employer to document how they handle those claims. 

Rumel also added that the nature of the vaccine policy during a global pandemic doesn’t seem unreasonable to him.

“You know, particularly in the healthcare field…. It strikes me as very reasonable to have a vaccine policy, given the specific nature of their mission and the purpose for their existence,” Rumel said. 

Unemployment laws are state-specific, and legal challenges have varied in different states. In 2014, pre-COVID, a New Jersey appeals court ruled in favor of a nurse who was terminated for declining to get vaccinated, saying the state’s Department of Labor should have paid unemployment benefits to her. But, Rumel added, New Jersey’s unemployment law is different, and defines “misconduct” more narrowly. 

More recently, a US District Court dismissed a lawsuit from 117 hospital employees, who sued over Houston Methodist Hospital’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement. After the ruling, 153 employees ultimately quit or were dismissed from the hospital. That lawsuit did not deal with unemployment claims. 

Idaho Department of Labor Director Jani Revier declined to comment on whether Idaho workers who were let go for refusing vaccines would be eligible for unemployment, but said generally, each unemployment claim has unique factors that the department considers on a case-by-case basis.

Take A Stand, an organization formed to oppose the employers’ vaccine policies, did not return a request for comment.

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