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Washington workers who decline vaccine mandate unlikely to qualify for unemployment

Employment attorneys in Washington say workplaces can mandate a COVID-19 vaccine and that could be a condition of employment

SEATTLE — Employees who decline the COVID-19 vaccine per workplace mandates are not likely to qualify for unemployment benefits unless they have a unique circumstance, such as approved exemptions.

"Everyone is trying to make sense of this right now," said Jason Rittereier, employment attorney at HKM Employment Attorneys.

Rittereier said workplaces can legally mandate a vaccine requirement as a condition of employment and for that reason, employees who do not follow workplace policy are subject to being let go.

"Employees should not count on unemployment benefits if they were to be fired because they failed to get vaccinated or if they resigned because they refused to get vaccinated," he said.

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Information posted online by the Washington State Employment Security Department said employees may still qualify for the payments based on "unique circumstances."

"Factors may include when the employer adopted the requirement, whether the employee is otherwise eligible for benefits, the specific terms of the vaccine policy including allowable exemptions, and the reason why the employee did not comply with the vaccine requirement," the online information said.

Gov. Jay Inslee in a news conference last week said more directly that many people will not qualify for unemployment benefits.

"If you leave, the vast majority of people will not be eligible for unemployment compensation either, so people will be without a paycheck the day that they're discharged," Inslee said.

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The Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE), which represents 47,000 state workers, said they encourage their members to be vaccinated but that the mandate, "must be implemented in a way that respects employees in need of religious or medical accommodations, considers the already serious staffing crisis in public service, and acknowledges the sacrifice of our state's public servants."

WFSE representative Justin Lee stated in an email to KING 5 that the union's position is that the state should return to the bargaining table to negotiation the mandate's impacts, though it's unclear if that includes discussions on unemployment benefits.

"The governor has stated he's willing to work with unions; we need the state's bargaining team to fulfill that commitment," Lee said.

Employment attorneys like Rittereier, meanwhile, said they expect more calls from workers seeking clarification.

"Absent some collective bargaining rights through a union that otherwise determines your eligibility for these rights, you shouldn't expect these unemployment benefits to be available," Rittereier said.