In August, when Governor Jay Inslee ordered state employees, healthcare workers and others to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by October 18, authorities issued a stern warning: if you resign or are fired for refusing a jab, don’t expect unemployment benefits.
But nearly two months after the vaccination deadline, it is unclear how worried workers hesitant about vaccination should be.
Although thousands of workers in Washington have likely quit or been made redundant on government and private vaccine tenures – including nearly 2,000 state employees as of Nov. 15, according to state data – only 26 requests for The warrant-related unemployment benefits were flagged for review by the state’s Department of Employment Security on Friday. While the review process is not complete, ESD officials do not believe that any of these claims have been dismissed.
The number of reported claims is expected to increase in the coming weeks as ESD’s pending review process catches up with mandate-related claims and a much broader federal mandate on vaccines aimed at companies over 100 employees will go into effect Jan. 4, ESD spokesman Nick Demerice said. And, he added, “there will be many circumstances where if you leave your employer on the basis of this requirement, you will not be eligible for benefits.”
Some jurists are not so sure. They believe that ESD can ultimately only deny benefits to a relatively small number of workers who quit or are made redundant during tenure – in part due to the wider uncertainty surrounding the rules granting exemptions. religious and medical for those hesitating about vaccination.
“Employers and agencies, including ESD, really don’t want to get into the complication of ‘what is a sincere religious belief?’ or ‘what is a medical problem?’ Said Timothy Emery, Managing Partner at Emery Reddy, a Seattle-based employment law firm.
Emery and Jason Rittereiser, lawyer and expert on COVID-related labor regulations at HKM Employment Attorneys in Seattle, say they have yet to hear of a worker denied benefits during tenure, despite receiving numerous inquiries from workers on vaccination mandates.
“What I saw is that ESD does not challenge unemployment [benefits] in that context at all, ”Emery said.
Uncertainties over vaccination warrants and unemployment benefits have increased since Governor Jay Inslee issued his vaccination orders in August.
Shortly thereafter, amid political outcry over the mandate, an ESD spokesperson warned that while the mandate included medical and religious exemptions, employees who “split” over the mandate “do not. shouldn’t assume they’re going to get unemployment insurance ”. This message was widely affirmed by EDD on October 18, as the state deadline passed.
But from the start, state officials also recognized that the issue of benefits was too nuanced for a single, comprehensive policy and would require consideration on a case-by-case basis.
Federal and state laws give employers considerable power to enforce workplace demands – and to fire workers for non-compliance – as long as employers also try to accommodate religious objections or legitimate medical concerns.
In theory, this means that quitting or being fired because of vaccination warrants could exclude unemployment benefits, the bulk of which goes to laid-off workers.
But unemployment regulations have always allowed potential exceptions: for example, when a worker is fired for something other than misconduct or leaves an obviously hostile workplace.
COVID-19 only added other scenarios in which workers who have quit or been made redundant may still be eligible for benefits.
A construction company, for example, can give a religious exemption to a worker opposed to vaccination, but still has to let that employee go because all of their jobsites require vaccinations.
“We have seen many circumstances where employers have granted an exception or exemption and then conducted the second level analysis which says, ‘but we can’t accommodate you, and therefore we always fire you'” , said Rittereiser. noted.
In such a case, the worker might still be eligible for unemployment benefits, Demerice said. Of the 1,956 state employees who resigned or were fired during their tenure as of November 15, “a good portion of them were people who were granted an exemption but [were] unable to be accommodated, ”said Demerice. “In this situation, you would probably be receiving benefits. “
But workers skeptical of vaccines might retain their eligibility for benefits for other reasons, including because their employers are trying to avoid tenure-related lawsuits against employees, legal experts say.
For example, employers can reclassify a dismissal as a dismissal, which is technically covered by unemployment insurance. Or employers might not exercise their right to challenge a dismissed employee’s claim for unemployment benefits – challenges that often influence ESD’s final eligibility decision, legal experts say.
Employers who hope to avoid litigation “don’t want to push the worker into a corner,” Emery said. “If you create a situation where your worker has no choice but to quit and then try to fight their unemployment benefits, you are begging for a [court] struggle.”
More generally, many employers prefer to avoid or postpone tough decisions related to controversial policy decisions, and to some extent this may also be the case even for government agencies such as ESD, legal experts have said.
The ESD “would rather not deal with … the nuance of whether or not someone should get benefits who are separated for warrant reasons,” Rittereiser said. “Employers and the Department of Job Security are looking for opportunities to interpret things in a way that avoids concluding on the mandate in general. “
“Nobody really wants to test this in court,” Emery added.
Another factor that could reduce the number of refused claims: Some separated workers may not even bother to apply for unemployment benefits, which now only cover around half of wages lost due to the expiration of federal benefits improved in September, and peak at $ 929 per week. .
Yet ESD makers are sticking to their “don’t count on the benefits” message. The low number of complaints reported as tenure-related likely reflects the fact that most complaints resulting from resignation or termination, for whatever reason, are automatically held for review, which can take time. six to eight weeks, Demerice said.
Since the state’s tenure deadline was around seven weeks, ESD expects an increase in reported claims over the next two or three weeks, Demerice said.
“Inevitably, some will be refused,” he added. “So it would be irresponsible of us to put out a public message that says you are likely to get a benefit, when there will be a large number of people who will not.”