At least five Republican-led states have extended unemployment benefits to people who've lost jobs over vaccine mandates - and a smattering of others may soon follow.
Workers who quit or are fired for cause - including for defying company policy - are generally ineligible for jobless benefits. But Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee have carved out exceptions for those who won't submit to the multi-shot coronavirus vaccine regimens that many companies now require. Similar ideas have been floated in Wyoming, Wisconsin and Missouri.
Critics contend that these states are incentivizing people to skip shots that public health experts say offer the best line of defense against the coronavirus. Business leaders and industry groups have argued against the rule changes because, they say, companies would shoulder much of the costs. And the efforts are playing out as the Biden administration is pressing immunization rules for private companies and as coronavirus cases are surging again because of the fast-spreading omicron variant.
Observers say it's a mark of the politicization of the coronavirus - with fights flaring over business closures, mask mandates and more - and how it has scrambled state politics and altered long-held positions. It wasn't long ago, they note, that two dozen Republican-led states moved to restrict unemployment aid to compel residents to return to the workforce and ease labor shortages.
"These governors, who are using the unemployment insurance system in a moment of political theater to make a statement about the vaccine mandate, are the same folks who turned off unemployment benefits early for millions of workers over the summer," said Rebecca Dixon, the executive director of the left-leaning National Employment Law Project. Arkansas, Iowa, Tennessee and Florida cut federal unemployment aid in June.
But backers insist that Americans should be able to decide for themselves whether to get vaccinated. Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, R, has broadly criticized vaccine mandates as ineffective and unfair, at one point tweeting: "Kansans have made it clear that they choose freedom over Faucism" - a play on the name of the nation's leading infectious-disease expert, Anthony Fauci, whose masking and vaccination guidance during the pandemic has made him a target for the right.
Masterson also has brushed aside concerns the rule changes would lead to a rush of unemployment claims could drain the state's unemployment insurance fund and weigh on businesses.
"To have a hit on the fund, you have to have an employer that is denying the medical and individual rights of the employee, and firing them for it," Masterson said. "Simple solution: Don't do that."
The rule changes is one among multiple state measures seeking to undermine President Biden's vaccine mandate, experts say. His vaccine-or-test requirement for businesses with at least 100 employees and a separate vaccine mandate for health-care workers have been mired in legal challenges. The issue will get a hearing before the Supreme Court next month.
It's unclear how many workplaces mandate inoculations. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey from October found that about a quarter of the respondents reported that their employers had a vaccination requirement. As of December, at least 2,640 of the nation's 6,000 hospitals had some form of a vaccine requirement, according to data maintained by the American Hospital Association. That's about 44 percent, up from about 41 percent in October.
Surveys suggest relatively few people have left jobs because of company vaccine mandates; Kaiser's poll shows 5 percent of unvaccinated adults fall into this category.
Each state sets its own eligibility guidelines for unemployment benefits, but they generally are available to those who are out of work because of issues beyond their control, such as being laid off because of a drop in company revenue. That is why someone fired for violating corporate policy, which would include vaccination rules, would not normally qualify for aid.
But in some states, the new qualifying criteria reflects the ideological division over the nation's pandemic response. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, R, who has signed several bills to hobble coronavirus vaccine mandates, was among the 24 GOP governors who rejected enhanced unemployment benefits. But coverage for the vaccine-averse represents the first time that voluntary job quitters will have qualified for jobless aid, political observers in the state say.
Eligibility is applied on a relatively narrow basis in Florida, advocates say. An estimated 8.3% of unemployed Floridians were receiving benefits before the pandemic, according to the National Employment Law Project. The average unemployment benefit in Florida was $230 per week as of September 2021, according to Labor Department data. That compares with the U.S. average of $348. On the high end, states like Massachusetts pay close to $500 per week.
In Kansas, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly sided with a predominantly conservative legislature to exempt employees from vaccine mandates on medical or religious grounds. The law creates a process through which the government reviews claims from those who leave jobs because of a vaccine mandate and can provide for retroactive payment of benefits. The Kansas law imposes fees of up to $50,000 for large employers or $10,000 for smaller ones.
The Kansas Chamber of Commerce objected to the benefits language in a special session before the legislature, saying the state should expect to pay out as much as $5.6 billion from its unemployment insurance trust fund according to current vaccination rates. About 55 percent of the state was fully vaccinated as of Dec. 7, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Allowing unemployment benefits as the proposed legislation recommends could cause significant financial harm to the state's [unemployment insurance] trust fund, negatively impact its solvency, and lead to increased taxes on the Kansas businesses who are struggling to recover from the pandemic," Kansas Chamber of Commerce President Alan Cobb said in a statement.
Kansas lawmakers moved forward despite the chamber's objection, and the measure was signed into law late last month.
A few other states are considering similar measures. A House bill in Wyoming focused on benefits for workers leaving employers over federal vaccine policies was up for consideration in a special session last week, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. A similar measure was proposed by Wisconsin Republicans before being vetoed by the Democratic governor, according to the Wisconsin Examiner.
Missouri Chamber of Commerce President Dan Mehan said he expects the issue of unemployment benefits for the unvaccinated to be proposed in the next legislative session and is preparing to fight it. "We don't want to see undue costs brought into play as a result of this," Mehan said.
Business groups in other states are likely to oppose similar measures, Mehan said. "Some states will face this threat. They will probably be redder states. Some states won't, and they will probably be bluer states," Mehan said. "Usually, this threat is not coming from the Republican side."
Republicans' embrace of such benefits can be explained by how they view the "deservingness" of applicants, said Matt Bruenig of the left-leaning People's Policy Project.
"It has to do with who you imagine getting the benefits . . . what is the image that's put in your head," Bruenig said.
"[Conservative lawmakers] in normal times think, 'Oh well the people on these benefits are losers or aren't deserving,'" Bruenig said. "If you can get their mind oriented towards a population they don't think that about, they'll come around to it and say, 'Oh, this makes sense.'"
Will Raderman, an unemployment benefits expert with the libertarian-leaning Niskanen Center who formerly worked as a field organizer for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), says he thinks state legislatures and the federal government should expand benefits for a broader group of individuals rather than just the unvaccinated. Short of that, he said, it doesn't make sense to deny benefits because of someone's vaccination status.
"I don't think their families, if they have children, should suffer because that breadwinner is refusing to be vaccinated," Raderman said. "To say [unvaccinated people] should also lose financial security in between jobs, that seems pretty extreme to me."