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New GOP bill wants unemployment benefits for those who leave jobs over vaccine mandate

State says you may be eligible for benefits anyway, without bill becoming law
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Posted at 7:58 PM, Oct 18, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A new bill from GOP State Rep. Rusty Grills wants to offer unemployment benefits for those who quit or were fired over their company’s vaccine mandate.

Grills, who represents District 77, introduced HB 8003 on Monday and as the bill states, the purpose is to make sure a vaccine doesn’t stand in the way of benefits for those who otherwise would be eligible.

The bill also says these workers should be entitled to the same amount in benefits, which as of July is back to $275/week in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Lee opted Tennessee out of all federal unemployment programs this summer, leaving behind only the state’s program. GOP leaders agreed with the governor that having these extra benefits available, which at its height paid nearly $600/week, offered little incentive for people to return to work. The change also meant no more payments for the self-employed who were newly eligible for benefits through the federal programs.

While this new bill focuses on who is eligible, other similar bills in the past have attempted to prohibit state and local government entities from requiring vaccinations as a condition for employment.

Senate Bill 186 and HB 0172 were introduced earlier this year by State Sen. Janice Bowling and State Rep. Bud Hulsey. Both bills stalled in committees, but Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton had this to say when asked about the latest proposal.

“One of the things we’re going to try to do this time is we may try to move to nullify President Biden’s stuff that he’s trying to do through OSHA and do a nullification type of bill and push back on the federal government,” Sexton said.

President Joe Biden on Sept. 9 unveiled a plan where the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would require all employers of 100 or more employees to get their staff vaccinated or conduct weekly COVID-19 testing.

According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), private businesses requiring a vaccine must also provide accommodations for qualified religious and medical exemptions.

As more companies make COVID vaccines a requirement, we’ll likely see more lines at vaccine clinics around the state. Now the question is, can those who opt-out still get unemployment even without this new bill?

Labor attorney Michael Elkins says while every state has its own rules on this, usually leaving a job or getting fired because you’ve opted out of a workplace policy could qualify as misconduct.

“That sort of logically makes sense right. Why should you get paid if you commit misconduct? Now, what constitutes misconduct? That’s different state by state,” Elkins said.

The Tennessee Dept. of Labor and Workforce Development has its own way of defining misconduct. It’s their position that refusing the vaccine alone is not considered misconduct if your job suddenly came up with this new policy making the COVID vaccine mandatory. At that rate, they believe “the employer has substantially changed the terms of the hiring agreement.” This means you’re not automatically disqualified from unemployment benefits.

If you accept a job offer at a company with an already established vaccine mandate and later refuse to get vaccinated, you would not qualify for benefits. Their statement goes on to say, “as, with all internal employment policies, the employer has the burden of ensuring timely and sufficient compliance. However, these positions are subject to change should there be a state or federal law or regulations change.”

Speaker Sexton says he and other GOP legislators plan to host a call to compare what's done in other states. This is the legislative call or the agreed upon language that would serve as the purpose for the House and Senate to meet as part of a special session.

“The call is open to allow us to have a discussion that we could talk about anything we need to about businesses and vaccinations and hopefully in a week or two move in a direction we want to send Tennessee in,” Sexton said.

States like Michigan, Washington, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania have practically carbon copies of the same bill, but Elkins says it’s no surprise these have yet to become law.

“I think you could have a situation where you get a slippery slope. Where other policies suddenly become not misconduct,” Elkins said.

Now for the other question, what if you left because you felt your company wasn’t safe enough?

You may still be eligible, but the current policy by TDLWD doesn’t make any guarantees.

Elkins says it’s worth a shot to apply for benefits anyway. In his experience, some companies have elected not to challenge your request with the state. Which means you have a much better chance of getting approved.

While every case is different, one thing stays certain. This is one debate that’s far from finished.