Vaccine Politics Upend Republican Orthodoxy On Unemployment Benefits

Republican state lawmakers are abandoning a core economic policy in order to fight against the Biden administration’s push for mass vaccination.

Six GOP-led states have made workers eligible for unemployment insurance if they’re fired or they quit after refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and Republicans are pushing similar bills in another 11 states, according to the Century Foundationa liberal think tank that tracks unemployment policy.

Letting workers qualify for unemployment insurance if they’re fired or if they voluntarily quit represents a dramatic reversal for Republicans. Generally, workers who quit their jobs or get fired for misconduct are ineligible for benefits, an aspect of unemployment policy that Republicans highlighted aggressively at the outset of the pandemic.

In May 2020, Donald Trump’s administration urged states to yank benefits from workers who refused to go back to their jobs, and some states even set up special tip lines where employers could report workers who’d refused to return.

Congress had created a special type of pandemic unemployment benefits for workers who aren’t traditionally covered under state laws — including workers who quit their jobs due because they faced a higher risk of severe illness due to COVID-19 — but the Trump administration stressed in it benefits Q&A that “voluntarily deciding to quit your job out of a general concern about exposure to COVID-19 does not make you eligible.”

In Tennessee, a woman who quits her job in order to protect herself and her family from domestic violence would not have the same legal protection as an individual who refuses to get vaccinated.The Century Foundation

More broadly, Republicans at all levels complained that the extra benefits Congress enacted in response to the pandemic encouraged people to stay home instead of working. Republicans generally do not favor policies that allow more people to get unemployment benefits. In recent years, they’ve pushed for drug-testing requirements and have said giving people money not to work is harmful to employers and society in general.

Now, however, Republicans in some states are saying that if you quit your job because you’re concerned about getting a vaccine that has been proven safe and effective, you can get benefits.

“Under these policies, vaccine refusers without a medical or religious reason would get special treatment, as compared to other unemployment claimants,” the Century Foundation’s Samantha Wing and Andrew Stettner wrote in their report. “For example, in Tennessee, a woman who quits her job in order to protect herself and her family from domestic violence would not have the same legal protection as an individual who refuses to get vaccinated.”

Wing and Stettner said “opening up UI benefits to vaccine refusers is quite a hypocritical turnaround” for states that cut off federal benefits last year amid complaints of a worker shortage.

President Joe Biden’s administration sought to require all large employers to either make their workers get vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing, but the White House withdrew the rule after the Supreme Court blocked it from taking effect.

Nationally, Republicans have railed against Biden’s vaccine mandate, but congressional Republicans have not pushed for a new federal law allowing job-quitters to receive benefits.

Florida changed its unemployment law in November as a direct response to the Biden vaccine rule. The law disallows private employers from requiring their workers to get shots, and a less-noticed provision says refusing to do so won’t count as misconduct to disqualify someone from receiving benefits.

“Nobody should lose their job due to heavy-handed COVID mandates and we had a responsibility to protect the livelihoods of the people of Florida,” the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, said at the time.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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