Some Republican states are expanding unemployment benefits for employees who have been fired or quit over vaccine mandates, a move critics say in effect pays people for not getting vaccinated.
Four states - Iowa, Tennessee, Florida, and Kansas - have changed their rules on unemployment to include people who have been terminated or who have chosen to leave their jobs because of their employers' vaccine policies.
The partisan divide is striking, Anne Paxton, staff attorney and policy director for the Unemployment Law Project in Washington state, told the Guardian. "It's very hard to regard this particular move as being based on anything much more than political reasons."
The development also comes as the new Omicron variant has emerged, triggering concern that the strain could already be inside the US. If so, it would likely see a new spike in infections in America.
There are 30 states with Republican-led legislatures that could follow suit. "I would be very surprised if it stopped at this four," Paxton said. Missouri is contemplating similar laws, while states like Maryland are considering "mitigating factors" around unemployment and vaccine rules.
Some Democrat states, on the other hand, have said that leaving a job because of mandates will disqualify former employees from these benefits unless they have demonstrated exemptions.
"Partisanship continues to be a sharp dividing line in vaccine attitudes," the Kaiser Family Foundation reported in October, with 90% of Democrats and 61% of Republicans saying they have gotten at least one dose.
Only 5% of unvaccinated workers said they have left a job over mandates, and unemployment is dropping swiftly across the country.
Unemployment benefits are not equivalent to full-time wages, Dorit Reiss, professor of law at UC Hastings College of the Law, pointed out. But rules like these may form an incentive against vaccination.
"It's like offering a financial benefit for not vaccinating," Reiss told the Guardian. "If the person would not get unemployment benefits if they refused to wash their hands at work and were fired over that, they should be treated the same way."
Unemployment law in the United States is governed partly by federal law, but states have latitude to set their own requirements or restrictions, Paxton said.
Typically, when employees are fired or they quit because of a business's policies they aren't eligible for unemployment benefits, unless they have an exemption for established religious or moral objections, or medical reasons.
"Benefits are for people who are unemployed through no fault of their own," Paxton said. But the interpretation of fault can vary.
And in recent weeks, the Republican leaders of these states have signed bills protecting benefits around vaccination mandates, essentially liberalizing unemployment rules around vaccines in conservative states.
If states want to change the rules around unemployment benefits for those who clash with employers' policies, they should change the rules for everyone, Reiss said.
"They should pass a law that's broader that says, 'Anyone who's fired for cause gets unemployment benefits anyway.' And that's fine. That's a value judgment, and states can make it," Reiss said. But "limiting it to vaccines alone, it's sending a message that vaccines are not important, and that's a bad message."
There were already marked differences along partisan lines in how states handle unemployment benefits.
"The blue states tend to be more generous in their eligibility rules," Paxton said. "They tend to have higher benefits. And the red states have a tendency to be on the stingy side."
In Florida, for instance, the maximum benefit is set at $275 a week, which is lower than the weekly minimum in Washington.
Many Republican-led states also opted to end federal unemployment assistance earlier this year.
"They were not trying to help people who were jobless in that respect," Paxton said. "So it's hard to take this very seriously as a substantive, well-thought-out policy move in these four states." Instead, she said, the decision seems to be less about unemployment policy and more about political tools "to aggravate the partisan divide," Paxton said.
Nine states have introduced restrictions on the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for businesses with more than 100 employees and for federal agencies and contractors.
Tennessee and Montana have banned private employers from mandating the vaccines, and seven other states have introduced wide-ranging restrictions on mandates, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. After Florida restricted the rules, for instance, Disney World halted its employee vaccination requirements.
When it comes to ending the pandemic, Reiss said, working around mandates like these is "going to make it substantially harder".