High Cost of Vaccine Refusal

With Omicron barreling through the country, now more than ever the issue of vaccination is resurfacing. Truly, most hospitals are reporting that the vast majority of those hospitalized with Covid-19 are unvaccinated, but for those unwilling to get the shot, there is another issue. Many employers are mandating vaccinations for their employees, and for those refusing to get vaccinated, more than their health is currently at stake.

Some Businesses Mandating Vaccines

In a bid to keep employees safe and keep their businesses running smoothly, many companies have mandated that employees get vaccinated. Recently Citibank reiterated their October announcement that if employees are not vaccinated by January 14, they will be placed on unpaid leave and fired by the end of the month. They are the first major Wall Street business to create this kind of strict policy.

With the Omicron virus running rampant, companies are trying to protect their employees and keep the business moving forward, but it begs the question of whether or not a company has the right to mandate what employees put in their own bodies.

Jacqueline Voronov, partner at law firm Hall Booth Smith, said that courts are upholding the rights of employers to set their own policies, even in mandating vaccines.  "A private employer is allowed to mandate its own policy. And if Citi wants to have a mandatory vaccination policy, they can do that. Provided that they provide a medical exemption for somebody who maybe has a contraindication. Any challenge to that policy will be unsuccessful."

Other companies are following this trend as well, including big name businesses like Google and United. United recently fired 200 of its 67,000 employees who refused to get vaccinated, and out of 2,000 employees who asked for religious and medical exemptions, half are on unpaid leave and the other half are not working directly with customers.

What do the Courts Say?

Last September, the Biden administration tried to mandate a vaccine for workplaces that employ more than 100 employees, and this rule was slated to start on January 10. But the mandate was suspended and is currently being argued in the Supreme Court as to whether the federal government can demand that private businesses vaccinate their employees.

That being said, private companies seem to be able to do what they want. For instance, on January 7, 2022, while the federal legislation was being argued, the Louisiana Supreme Court argued on behalf of several employees at the University Health Shreveport who challenged the mandatory vaccine policy and upheld a private employer’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate, as a result of the longstanding Louisiana employment-at-will doctrine.

So, long story short, the consensus at the moment is that as long as employers offer religious and medical exemptions, they can insist that their employees receive the vaccine.

And the news gets worse instead of better for those who refuse to get vaccinated. If the company’s vaccine policy is clear and employees choose not to get vaccinated, that would be considered misconduct, and would be a cause for firing. And in most current situations, if you are fired from your job, you are not eligible for unemployment benefits.

NPR reported that “The vast majority of Americans have complied with vaccine mandates. But for the vaccine holdouts, walking away from a job comes at a cost, one that is bigger for some than others.”

If an employee gets fired for refusing vaccination, they don’t necessarily receive unemployment. “I would caution employees against the notion that if they don’t quit, but stay and get fired, they can get unemployment. It’s very risky,”Marinel Smith, partner at law firm Hall Booth Smith, PC, explains.

State Rules Vary

The ramifications of what businesses can do if you refuse to get vaccinated varies by state. Forbes magazine recently reported, “In Texas, for example, you can be denied unemployment if you voluntarily resigned or are terminated for associated misconduct,” says Carrie Hoffman, partner at law firm Foley & Lardner, LLP. “Employers could argue that the refusal of the vaccine was a voluntary resignation or an involuntary termination for misconduct.”

But on the flip side, some states are creating laws to protect employees from getting fired refusing the vaccine. According to Forbes, “Arkansas, Iowa, Tennessee, Florida and Kansas have recently passed laws specifying that workers who lose their jobs for not getting vaccinated can receive unemployment benefits.”

Even as some states are “protecting” workers from vaccination, others are ensuring that those fired for refusal to vaccinate are not receiving benefits. Oregon is one such state which insists that health care, education, and government workers all get vaccinated.

With the Omicron variant in play, and who knows what variants in tow, the question of vaccine mandates will be a hot topic for a while. As of now, it seems that private companies can dictate what they want for their employees, so workers will need to balance personal freedoms versus employment. At any rate, the debate will continue, and the courts will continue to speak their mind.