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Republican lawmakers push to protect workers who decline COVID-19 vaccine

Virginia Capitol.
Virginia Capitol.(Conor Lobb/Capital News Service)
Published: Feb. 17, 2022 at 4:40 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. – Lawmakers narrowly passed a bill this month that would allow people fired for refusing a COVID-19 vaccine to receive unemployment benefits if no other misconduct took place.

The measure advanced from the House of Delegates on a 51-48 party line vote and was assigned to a Senate committee on Feb. 10.

The bill was one of several introduced by Republicans this session to protect and defend workers who do not want to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Del. Kathy J. Byron, R-Forest, introduced House Bill 1201 to protect the unvaccinated from potential discrimination. The bill adds a line to the current unemployment misconduct law stating refusal to receive a COVID-19 vaccine does not hinder someone from obtaining unemployment benefits.

Byron said her bill is not an endorsement for or against the vaccine. She is a proponent of the COVID-19 vaccine but said vaccination is a personal choice.

“There are many reasons why people have declined to take it, due to religious reasons and other reasons,” Byron said in a February subcommittee meeting.

The bill preserves a worker’s right to make decisions about their own health, Byron said. However, she said the legislation doesn’t prevent employers from requiring employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

“They are not getting purposely fired so they can go home and collect unemployment,” Byron said. “We need to make sure they have the ability to have benefits until they find another position.”

There is currently no explicit ruling as to whether refusing a COVID-19 vaccine without reason qualifies as misconduct, according to Norfolk-based employment lawyer John M. Bredehoft. Reasons to refuse the vaccine include medical injury, disability, or a “sincere religious objection,” he said.

“Knowing what the rule is has a definite value independent of what the rule would be,” Bredehoft said.

Generally, if someone gets fired, they get unemployment benefits and if they quit, they don’t receive the benefits, Bredehoft said. However, the bill isn’t clear enough, Bredehoft said.

“Let’s be clear. Nobody gets fired for refusal to get vaccinated – period,” Bredehoft said. “People get fired for refusal to be vaccinated when the company has a policy requiring them to be vaccinated.”

Nicole Riley, deputy secretary of labor for Gov. Glenn Youngkin, spoke at the subcommittee meeting. She said the governor’s administration supports the bill.

Virginians have received over 15 million doses of various COVID-19 vaccines, and 71% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Over 80% of the adult population 18 and up is fully vaccinated. A person is considered fully vaccinated by the VDH when they received one dose of a single dose vaccine and both doses of a two dose vaccine.

Del. Don L. Scott, D-Portsmouth, was the only person to question Byron during the subcommittee meeting. No delegates asked questions during subsequent meetings. Scott confirmed with Byron that Youngkin’s administration supports giving unemployment benefits to those who were fired for refusing a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Senate Commerce and Labor committee expected to read the bill meets on Mondays. The bill is one of approximately 70 House measures waiting for the committee’s action.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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