Tennessee Republicans fighting against COVID vaccine mandates are trying to make sure all workers who are fired can receive unemployment.
The push may resume in the legislature’s special session this week — though for the most part, the fight is symbolic.
Each state handles unemployment a little differently, but national experts predicted people who lost jobs over refusing to take a shot would “probably” forego jobless benefits.
In Tennessee, however, being told to get a vaccine after being hired is grounds enough to qualify for weekly benefits, says Melissa Owens, assistant administrator of the state’s unemployment trust fund.
“We would consider that a change in the hiring agreement. And there would be no breach by the claimant for failure to comply with that requirement,” she says.
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee has already fired 19 people who wouldn’t take the vaccine, and a company spokesman confirms they were allowed to apply for unemployment.
However, there is a slightly more complicated situation playing out at Oak Ridge National Lab. Nearly 150 employees claiming religious objections were placed on indefinite, unpaid leave rather than being fired. They’ve taken the matter to a judge and expect an order of some kind this week.
State lawmakers — both Republican and Democrat — say no one should be left in limbo. While the Oak Ridge dispute plays out in the courts, lawmakers are interested in preventing other companies from doing the same thing.
“I don’t believe that employees ought to be left out there in purgatory,” Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, said during a committee hearing on COVID vaccine mandates and unemployment last week. “They’re either unemployed, or they ain’t.”