FAQ: Can I collect unemployment benefits if I was fired for refusing a vaccine?

FAQ: Can I collect unemployment benefits if I was fired for refusing a vaccine?

Many people have asked ULP about whether a person could collect unemployment benefits if they were fired for refusing a vaccine. 

The U.S. Department of Justice issued an opinion July 8 stating that employers who require employees to be vaccinated are not violating the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act if the vaccine is approved by the FDA for emergency use, as the three vaccines used in the U.S. are. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has stated that requiring vaccinations of everybody who physically enters a workplace is not discriminatory as long as there are reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities or religious exemptions. 

Employees have the right to refuse a vaccination, but the consequence may include exclusion from the workplace or discharge if the employee cannot perform essential tasks of the job remotely.

Washington law requires that if an employer fires an employee, unemployment benefits may be denied only if the reason for the firing involved misconduct by the employee. Misconduct includes (a) Willful or wanton disregard of the rights, title, and interests of the employer or a fellow employee; and (b) Deliberate violations or disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect of an employee, among some other types of behavior.

At least in theory, refusing a vaccination could fall into either of those categories of misconduct.

If an employee has medical issues that make a vaccination inadvisable, refusing a vaccination could be protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and refusal may not be misconduct. Whether moral or religious objections would also protect a refusal is less clear. But if the employer has health-related reasons for requiring vaccination of everybody physically entering the workplace—e.g., preventing infections with COVID— the employer’s action could also be protected by the ADA. Most religions and religious leaders support vaccination, including the Catholic church.

So there can be competing rights here. The Employment Security Department in Washington has not yet made a statement on how a refusal to be vaccinated would be viewed. But many legal scholars contend that deliberately refusing to comply with a health-related requirement of an employer might be misconduct that would disqualify the employee from benefits. Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, says that the burden to prove misconduct is on the employer, but she believes most states would find the employee is disqualified.

We should note, though, that if this occurred, a person claiming benefits could always appeal the denial of benefit, and a judge might see the issue differently.