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Can employees who refuse the vax get unemployment benefits?

Vaccine trial
Posted at 1:24 PM, Aug 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-30 08:08:57-04

The fight over vaccine mandates continues across the country. More companies are requiring workers to get the vaccine, and refusing the shot could impact your ability to get unemployment benefits.

Employment attorney Barbara Bonar said her law firm is seeing a big surge in calls about vaccine mandates

“We're getting really dozens of calls even in a week on this very thing,” she said.

Ohio and Kentucky have different laws, but attorneys from both states said employees who refuse the vaccine are unlikely to be eligible for unemployment benefits if the refusal results in termination.

In Ohio, to get unemployment benefits, generally your unemployment needs to be due to no fault of your own. That's according to employment attorney Tod Thompson. He said if you chose not to get vaccinated, it would be hard to prove that losing your job wasn't your choice.

“The laws do not provide employees rights to decline, to adhere, to policies that their employers put in place to keep themselves the workforce in the greater public safe and healthy,” Thompson said. “The vast majority of employees are what we call ‘at-will’ employees. What that means really is that your employer can require of you or direct you to do pretty much anything that's reasonable."

There are exceptions, like quitting because your job put you in harm's way. The department would then decide whether a "reasonable person" would have made the same choice under similar circumstances.

“Reasonable” is open ended, but Bonar said it’d be hard to argue vaccines aren’t reasonable in a pandemic.

“I think most referees in making the decision would say that since the employer has a duty and a responsibility to protect all its workers,” Bonar said, “we're not sure that you are protected and that you would have good cause to quit.”

There are religious and medical exemptions, but even then, Bonar said, it could be hard to win a case over benefits.

"Having a job is very, very important," she said. "Having a legal claim in court because you lost your job is, you know, is not as nice to have because sometimes it takes years to get a win, even if you do get a winner."

In Kentucky, Thompson said you might be able to get benefits if you quit your job due to a lack of safety protocols, like social distancing or wearing a mask. He said you might have a strong argument that the workplace was unsafe and the employer was violating the law.