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At least five Republican-led states including Iowa have extended unemployment benefits to people who've lost jobs over vaccine mandates, and a smattering of others may soon follow.
Workers who quit or are fired for cause — including for defying company policy — are generally ineligible for claiming jobless benefits. But Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee have carved out exceptions for those who won't submit to the coronavirus vaccine regimens that many companies now require. Similar ideas have been floated in Wyoming, Wisconsin and Missouri.
The changes are among other state measures seeking to curtail what detractors say is President Joe Biden's overreach into health care decisions. His vaccine-or-test requirement for businesses with at least 100 employees — which Iowa is among the states contesting — and a separate vaccine mandate for health care workers will get a Sept. 7 hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Monday, Biden told a group of governors that the next step in facing the pandemic will have to come from the states.
“Look, there is no federal solution," he said after joining the White House COVID-19 response team's regular call with the National Governors Association. "This gets solved at the state level."
In his first public remarks about the pandemic after Christmas, Biden nevertheless sought to highlight what his administration is doing to respond to the omicron variant outbreak.
"We're mobilizing an additional 1,000 military doctors and nurses and medics to help staff hospitals," he said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency “is deploying hundreds of ambulances and EMS crews to transport patients."
"The bottom line is we want to assure the American people that we're prepared," Biden added.
The president also pointed out that the availability of vaccines has left Americans in a much safer place today than at the beginning of the pandemic — if only more people would use them.
Critics of the new state jobless benefits say these states are encouraging people to skip shots that public health experts say offer the best line of defense against the coronavirus. In Iowa, for instance, more than 81 percent of the patients being treated as of last week in the state’s hospitals were unvaccinated.
Observers say it's a mark of the politicization of the coronavirus — with fights flaring over business closures, mask mandates and more — and how it has scrambled state politics and altered long-held positions. It wasn't long ago, they note, that two dozen Republican-led states moved to do away with extra federal unemployment aid to compel residents to return to the workforce and ease labor shortages.
"These governors, who are using the unemployment insurance system in a moment of political theater to make a statement about the vaccine mandate, are the same folks who turned off unemployment benefits early for millions of workers over the summer," said Rebecca Dixon, the executive director of the left-leaning National Employment Law Project. Arkansas, Iowa, Tennessee and Florida cut federal unemployment aid early.
But backers insist that Americans should be able to decide for themselves whether to get vaccinated.
Republican Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson has broadly criticized vaccine mandates as ineffective and unfair, at one point tweeting: "Kansans have made it clear that they choose freedom over Faucism" — a play on the name of the nation's leading infectious-disease expert, Anthony Fauci, whose guidance during the pandemic has made him a target for the right.
Masterson also has brushed aside concerns the rule changes would lead to a rush of unemployment claims that could drain the state's unemployment insurance fund and weigh on businesses.
"To have a hit on the fund, you have to have an employer that is denying the medical and individual rights of the employee, and firing them for it," Masterson said. "Simple solution: Don't do that."
It's unclear how many workplaces mandate inoculations among their staffs. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey from October found that about a quarter of the respondents reported that their employers had a vaccination requirement.
As of Dec., at least 2,640 of the nation's 6,000 hospitals had some form of a vaccine requirement, according to data maintained by the American Hospital Association. That's about 44 percent, up from about 41 percent in October.
Surveys suggest relatively few people have left jobs because of company vaccine mandates; Kaiser's poll shows 5 percent of unvaccinated adults fall into this category.
In a special session in October, Iowa lawmakers passed House File 902, a bill intended to soften the financial blow associated with COVID-19 firings over a vaccine mandate. The new law also would allow employees in private Iowa businesses to claim they are medically vulnerable or have a religious objection to a mandated vaccine based solely on their statements, rather than with backing of a bona fide professional.
A few other states are considering similar measures.
A House bill in Wyoming focused on benefits for workers leaving employers over federal vaccine policies was up for consideration in a special session last week, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. A similar measure was proposed by Wisconsin Republicans before being vetoed by the Democratic governor, according to the Wisconsin Examiner.
Missouri Chamber of Commerce President Dan Mehan said he expects the issue of unemployment benefits for the unvaccinated to be proposed soon and is preparing to fight it.
"We don't want to see undue costs brought into play as a result of this," Mehan said.