Government workers, health care employees and educators who forfeited their jobs rather than comply with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate were told not to count on state unemployment benefits.
But nearly two months since the October 18 vaccination deadline has passed, most of the workers who fell into that category seem to be eligible for the jobless benefits.
So far, only 26 mandate-related claims for jobless benefits had been flagged for review (but not yet denied) by the state Employment Security Department (ESD) as of December 3.
However, ESD spokesperson Nick Demerice told the Seattle Times that the number of flagged claims is expected to rise in coming weeks as review process catches up with mandate-related claims. As more claims come in, he warned that “there will be many circumstances where if you leave your employer based on this requirement, you will not qualify for benefits.”
The number of denied claims may be relatively small, according to legal experts, due in part the ambiguity around rules granting exemptions for medical and religious reasons.
“Employers and agencies, including ESD, really don’t want to wade into the complication of ‘what is a sincerely held religious belief?’ or ‘what is a medical issue?’” Timothy Emery, managing partner at Emery Reddy, a Seattle-based employment law firm, told the Seattle Times.
Neither Emery nor Jason Rittereiser, an attorney who specializes in COVID-related workplace regulations at HKM Employment Attorneys, have seen a worker denied benefits over the mandate.
“What I’ve seen is that ESD is not challenging unemployment [benefits] in this context at all,” Emery said.
Medical and religious exemptions aside, vaccine-hesitant workers might be eligible for jobless benefits because their employers don’t want to deal with lawsuits down the road.
In those cases, an employers could classify a termination as a layoff, which is generally more likely to be eligible for benefits than for workers who quit voluntarily or were fired for certain reasons. Another scenario in which vaccine skeptics might retain benefits eligibility is if employers choose not to exercise their right to challenge a terminated employee’s claim.
“If you set up a situation where your worker has no choice but to quit, and then you try to fight their unemployment benefits, you’re begging for a [court] fight,” Emery said.
Regardless of early indications of how the claims are panning out, Demerice told the Seattle Times that it is inevitable that some will be denied. “It would be irresponsible for us to be putting out a public message that would say you’re likely to get benefits, when there will be a great number of folks that won’t.”
The ESD expects to see an increase in flagged claims over the next few weeks, Demerice said.
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