On October 20, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds announced a crackdown on unemployment benefits. It required recipients to double their work-seeking activity, and imposed strict checks – with the threat of cutting payments to anyone who fell short – to ensure “nobody receiving unemployment benefits needlessly remains on the sidelines” of the job market.
However, nine days later, Reynolds signed legislation pushing vaccine naysayers to do just that: sit on the sidelines. Under the new law, a person who “goes out of work for refusing to receive a COVID-19 vaccination…to receive benefits” cannot be disqualified.
Reynolds is one of many Republican politicians who openly advocate, and in some states have succeeded in enforcing a two-tier system of unemployment insurance. It is not a left-wing money-for-all or a right-wing money-for-no-one policy. It is a policy of malicious hypocrisy: caring for those who refuse to be polluted, a strict love for others.
Under these new laws, any worker fired for broadly defined “misconduct,” such as failing an employer-mandated drug test, is denied unemployment benefits — but employees who refuse to vaccinate against the coronavirus are glorified, protected and supported. The state must ensure, in the words of Reynolds, that these reckless exploiters “will continue to receive unemployment benefits despite being fired for standing up for their beliefs.”
The Republican Party’s indulgence of vaccine naysayers makes its rhetoric about self-reliance a joke. This summer, for example, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee ended the federal government’s COVID-era supplemental unemployment benefits. “We pay people to stay at home. And I announce that this needs to change. But two weeks ago, Lee signed legislation that would push vaccine refuseniks to stay home. Under Tennessee’s new policy, the state’s normal rule on employees can no longer be enforced. Those who are dismissed for “misconduct” — that is, they lose eligibility for unemployment benefits — over anyone who is terminated for “refusing to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.”
In May, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that he, too, would end bonus payments to Florida jobless. He said these payments created a harmful “incentive structure” that discouraged people from working. But DeSantis signed legislation two weeks ago that puts a similar incentive structure in place, exclusively for people who defy COVID vaccine requirements (albeit with lower payments than when the federal government was still offering an extra $300 in benefits a week). Under the new law, refusal of a vaccine cannot be considered “misconduct for the purpose of assisting in re-employment.” In fact, Florida law states that if you are unemployed and offered a job that requires vaccination, you can decline it and remain on the benefit.
Last week, Kansas adopted the same policy: You can continue to draw unemployment checks while denying job opportunities, as long as you specifically decline “work that requires compliance with COVID-19 vaccine requirements.” And if you were recently fired for refusing to be vaccinated — or if you were previously denied unemployment benefits because you rejected job offers that included a vaccination — the state now promises that you will receive “retroactive benefits” going back to the beginning of September. This benefit is for you, as a special kind of welfare recipient, even if you did not ask for retroactive payment of these benefits. Tennessee enacted a similar provision promising to “retroactively pay unemployment compensation,” without a specific time limit.
Prior to the enactment of these laws, the standard policy on job termination for “misconduct” in most states—that is, those offenders ineligible for unemployment compensation—was generally understood to cover vaccine refusal. Kansas law, for example, defined misconduct as “a violation of a duty or obligation reasonably owed to an employer as a condition of employment including, but not limited to, a violation of a company rule, including the safety rule.” Under Florida law, misconduct included “ignoring the reasonable standards of behavior that an employer would expect of its employee.” Tennessee law was nearly identical. Refusal to vaccinate, amid a respiratory pandemic that has killed millions of people, was a clear breach of safety. Now it has been elevated to sacred right.
New state laws also make fun of religion. Under Florida law, if an employee “simply submits” a statement “indicating that the employee refuses to be vaccinated with COVID-19 because of an honest religious belief,” “the employer must allow the employee to opt out of the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination authorization.” Similar Iowa policy . Kansas law requires employers to accept such requests for religious exemptions “without investigating the validity of the request.” By framing vaccine refusal as religious freedom—while making it impossible to ascertain whether refusal is really based on religion—the Republican Party is wrapping its audience of antisocial protesters in a mantle of martyrdom.
Republicans also argue that vaccine refusers deserve special treatment because it is wrong, as a matter of personal autonomy, to allow employers to dictate workers’ health decisions. As DeSantis said two weeks ago, “We respect people’s individual freedom.” But that’s not how DeSantis handles marijuana. Under Florida law, if you decline an employer-mandated drug test, this is “misconduct,” and it bars you from unemployment benefits if you are fired. And if you apply for a new job—but are refused because you failed a drug test “required as a condition of employment” in that job—you are also ineligible from unemployment benefits for “refusing to accept a suitable job offer.”
Let’s pause a bit to appreciate the Orwellian majesty of this sequence. 1) You, a responsible citizen, have got your own COVID footage and want to be a producer, so you are applying for a job. 2) A potential employer is asking for a drug use test. You test positive for marijuana, so your employer rejects you. 3) Based on your employer’s refusal of you—not your employer’s refusal—Florida declares that you have declined the job offer and, therefore, ineligible from unemployment benefits. However, 4) Your neighbor, who was fired for refusing a COVID vaccination and declined two subsequent job offers that required a COVID vaccination, continues to collect unemployment checks.
Meanwhile, under Florida law itself, employees who leave their jobs because they fear getting COVID become ineligible for unemployment benefits, unless they can demonstrate to DeSantis management that such fear constitutes a “good reason” to resign. They are treated more harshly than people who quit because they fear a federally approved vaccine.
This is how Republicans define “personal responsibility.”
Iowa has the same rule about employer drug tests. Its law specifically names marijuana as a substance worthy of a user’s ineligibility for unemployment benefits. Under Kansas law, a “positive breath alcohol test or positive chemical test” is “conclusive evidence of serious misconduct,” with additional penalties–beyond ordinary misconduct–for anyone seeking unemployment assistance. And in Tennessee, losing your job because of a “refusal to take a drug or alcohol test” can be considered a “discharge for work-related misconduct,” making you ineligible for help. When Republicans claim that their defense of vaccine rejecters is based on a principled commitment to staff physical independence — as they did at a Senate news conference on Tuesday — don’t believe a word.
This is not a party to personal autonomy, moral responsibility, free enterprise, limited government or self-reliance. It’s a party that put all those values aside, first for Donald Trump and then for COVID. Today’s Republican Party believes that government should control workplace politics and should support the exploiters who put their communities at risk. It is the anti-vaccination socialist party.