Vaccine-objecting workers in Washington may be ineligible for unemployment benefits

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Jobless benefits aren’t guaranteed for Washington workers who quit or were fired from their jobs rather than comply with the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate, according to a report by the Seattle Times. 

October 18 marked the deadline for Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate for most state government workers, health care employees and educators comply or face the consequences. A recent federal mandate placed similar restrictions on workers at private companies with 100 or more employees.

Legal experts are uncertain how workers who refuse the jabs will fare.

“We are in new territory,” Timothy Emery, managing partner at Emery Reddy, a Seattle-based employment law firm, told the Seattle Times. “It’s untested.”

There are several cases in which a separated employee might still be eligible for unemployment benefits. For example, workers who were approved for a vaccine exemption – including on religious or health grounds – but whose employer couldn’t find accommodation and ended up letting the worker go, could still qualify for the state benefits, Washington’s Employment Security Department (ESD) spokesperson Nick Demerice told the Seattle Times.

However, applicants who objected to the mandate on religious or medical grounds will likely need some form of documentation of their objections, according to Anne Paxton, policy director with the  Seattle- and Spokane-based Unemployment Law Project, which represents workers who are denied unemployment benefits.

“So, casually saying, ‘Oh yeah, religious objection’ is not going to fly without some kind of [evidence] showing that … this is not just a whim,” Paxton told the Seattle Times. If these individuals file jobless claims, they might be asked to demonstrate that they also objected to other vaccinations on similar grounds, Paxton said.

Some employers might try to help employees who turned down the vaccine qualify for jobless benefits by classifying the job separation as a layoff. Unemployment benefits are generally more likely to be approved for workers who have been laid off than for those who quit voluntarily or were fired for certain reasons.

A local labor group has even asked its employer to classify vaccine-objecting workers as layoffs, a local labor official told the Seattle Times.

One of the aims of these workarounds is to preserve employer-worker relations for the future. 

“Eventually this pandemic is going to end, and [companies] are still going to have a problem finding good people, and they’re not going to want to ruin those relationships by challenging the unemployment claims of unvaccinated employees,” said Emery. “They want these people to come back.”

Emery Reddy helps workers. Call us for a free consultation if you have an L&I, workers’ comp, or other employment law claim. You won’t get better advice.


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