On Oct. 20, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced a crackdown on unemployment benefits. She required recipients to double their job search activity, and she imposed strict audits—with the threat of cutting off payments to anyone who fell short—to ensure that “no Iowan who is receiving unemployment benefits unnecessarily remains on the sidelines” of the job market.
Nine days later, however, Reynolds signed legislation that pays vaccine refusers to do just that: sit on the sidelines. Under the new law, anyone “discharged from employment for refusing to receive a vaccination against COVID-19 … shall not be disqualified for benefits.”
Reynolds is one of many Republican politicians who openly advocate, and in some states have successfully imposed, a two-tiered system of unemployment insurance. It’s not a left-wing policy of money for everyone or a right-wing policy of money for no one. It’s a policy of pernicious hypocrisy: welfare for vaccine refusers, tough love for everyone else.
Under these new laws, any worker who gets fired for broadly defined “misconduct,” such as flunking an employer-imposed drug test, is disqualified from unemployment benefits—but employees who refuse COVID vaccination are glorified, protected, and subsidized. The state must guarantee, in Reynolds’ words, that these reckless freeloaders “will still receive unemployment benefits despite being fired for standing up for their beliefs.”
The GOP’s coddling of vaccine refusers makes a joke of its rhetoric about self-reliance. This summer, for instance, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee ended the federal government’s supplemental COVID-era unemployment benefits. “We are paying people to stay home. That needs to change,” he declared. But two weeks ago, Lee signed legislation that pays vaccine refusers to stay home. Under Tennessee’s new policy, the state’s normal rule about employees fired for “misconduct”—that they lose their eligibility for unemployment benefits—can no longer be applied to anyone who is terminated for “refusing to receive a vaccination for COVID-19.”
In May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that he, too, would end bonus payments to unemployed Floridians. These payments, he argued, had created a perverse “incentive structure” that discouraged people from working. But DeSantis signed legislation two weeks ago that sets up a similar incentive structure, exclusively for people who defy COVID vaccine requirements (albeit with lower payments than when the federal government was still offering an extra $300 per week in benefits). Under the new law, vaccine refusal can’t “be deemed misconduct for the purpose of reemployment assistance.” In fact, the Florida law says that if you’re unemployed and you’re offered a job that requires vaccination, you can turn it down and stay on the dole.
Last week, Kansas adopted the same policy: You can keep drawing unemployment checks while declining job opportunities, as long as you specifically refuse “work that requires compliance with a COVID-19 vaccine requirement.” And if you were recently fired for refusing vaccination—or if you were previously denied unemployment benefits because you refused job offers that entailed vaccination—the state now promises that you’ll be “retroactively paid benefits” going back to the beginning of September. This bonus payout is yours, as a special kind of welfare recipient, even if you have “not requested retroactive payment of such benefits.” Tennessee has enacted a similar clause promising “retroactive payment of unemployment benefits,” without a specified time limit.
Prior to the enactment of these laws, the standard policy about job termination for “misconduct” in most states—i.e., that such offenders were disqualified from unemployment compensation—was generally understood to cover vaccine refusal. Kansas law, for instance, defined misconduct as “a violation of a duty or obligation reasonably owed the employer as a condition of employment including, but not limited to, a violation of a company rule, including a safety rule.” Under Florida law, misconduct included “disregard of the reasonable standards of behavior which the employer expects of his or her employee.” Tennessee’s law was almost identical. Refusing vaccination, in the midst of a respiratory pandemic that has killed millions of people, was a pretty obvious safety violation. Now it’s been elevated to a sacred right.
The new state laws also make a mockery of religion. Under Florida’s statute, if an employee simply “presents” a statement “indicating that the employee declines COVID-19 vaccination because of a sincerely held religious belief,” “the employer must allow the employee to opt out of the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.” Iowa’s policy is similar. The Kansas law orders employers to accept such requests for religious exemptions “without inquiring into the sincerity of the request.” By framing vaccine refusal as religious freedom—while making it impossible to ascertain whether the refusal is truly grounded in religion—the GOP is wrapping its constituency of anti-social moochers in a cloak of martyrdom.
Republicans also argue that vaccine refusers deserve special treatment because it’s wrong, as a matter of personal autonomy, to let employers dictate workers’ health decisions. As DeSantis put it two weeks ago, “We are respecting people’s individual freedom.” But that’s not how DeSantis treats marijuana. Under Florida law, if you flunk an employer-imposed drug test, that’s “misconduct,” and it bars you from unemployment benefits if you’re fired. And if you apply for a new job—but you’re rejected for failing a drug test “required as a condition of employment” in that job—you’re further disqualified from unemployment benefits “for refusing to accept an offer of suitable work.”
Let’s pause to appreciate the Orwellian majesty of this sequence. 1) You, a responsible citizen, have gotten your COVID shots and want to be productive, so you apply for a job. 2) The prospective employer demands that you take a drug test. You test positive for marijuana, so the employer rejects you. 3) Based on the employer’s rejection of you—not your rejection of the employer—Florida declares that you have refused the job offer and are therefore disqualified from unemployment benefits. However, 4) your neighbor, who was fired for refusing COVID vaccination and has turned down two subsequent job offers that required COVID vaccination, continues to collect unemployment checks.
Meanwhile, under the same Florida law, employees who leave their jobs because they’re afraid of getting COVID become ineligible for unemployment benefits, unless they can prove to the DeSantis administration that this fear constituted “good cause” to quit. They’re treated more harshly than people who quit because they’re afraid of 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 that merits disqualification of the user from unemployment benefits. Under the Kansas statute, a “positive breath alcohol test or a positive chemical test” is “conclusive evidence of gross misconduct,” with extra penalties—beyond ordinary misconduct—for anyone seeking unemployment assistance. And in Tennessee, losing your job for “refusal to take a drug test or an alcohol test” can be “deemed to be a discharge for misconduct connected with work,” rendering you ineligible for assistance. When Republicans claim that their defense of vaccine refusers is based on a principled commitment to the physical autonomy of employees—as they did at a Senate press conference on Tuesday—don’t believe a word of it.
This isn’t a party of personal autonomy, moral responsibility, free enterprise, limited government, or self-reliance. It’s a party that has casually tossed aside each of these values, first for Donald Trump and then for COVID. Today’s GOP believes that the government should control workplace policies and should subsidize freeloaders who endanger their communities. It’s the party of socialism for anti-vaxxers.