PROVIDENCE — Rhode Islanders who lose their jobs because they refuse to follow their employers’ clearly communicated COVID-19 vaccine rules generally won’t be eligible for unemployment, state labor officials say.
Matt Weldon, the director of the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, cautioned that the department takes each claim on a case by case basis. Some may have medical or religious reasons not to get a vaccine, and those situations will have to be carefully scrutinized, he said. But as a general rule, the state considers COVID-19 vaccine mandates to be a reasonable requirement that employees have to follow. If they won’t, and they lose their jobs because of it, they won’t be able to get unemployment benefits.
“Because of all that’s been going on, the best advice we’ve received from health officials is that people should get vaccinated to put an end to this virus,” Weldon said in an interview Monday. “Having a requirement to be vaccinated is reasonable.”
COVID-19 vaccine mandates are rolling out on a variety of levels around Rhode Island as the state tries to track the number of eligible residents whose vaccination status is unknown. The number now stands just shy of 150,000, about 16 percent of those eligible for a shot.
The state has ordered health care providers and workers at public and private state-licensed health care facilities to get vaccinated. If workers at those facilities aren’t vaccinated by Oct. 1, they won’t be allowed in the building. The state has a medical exemption for health care workers — a provider needs to sign off on it — but no religious one. People will have to get frequent COVID-19 testing if they receive a medical exemption, but there’s no option to keep working while getting regularly tested if people don’t have a medical exemption.
It will largely be up to private institutions to figure out what to do with noncompliant staff in other settings. At the state’s own health care facilities — Eleanor Slater Hospital in Cranston and the Veterans Home, a state-run nursing home in Bristol — workers will be placed on unpaid leave if they’re not vaccinated by Oct. 1. They’ll then have 75 days to get vaccinated. If they’re still not vaccinated by Dec. 15, they’ll face progressive discipline, up to termination.
The most sweeping change mandate came down last week from the Biden administration, which announced that workers at companies with more than 100 employees will have to get vaccinated or be tested weekly.
As the steady drumbeat of mandates continues, Weldon said the state has recently been getting more questions about eligibility for unemployment with respect to COVID-19 vaccine rules.
The requirement that employees follow reasonable and clearly communicated employer rules applies to more than just COVID-19 vaccine requirements. It’s found in state law. For example, if someone loses their license to perform a certain type of work, and then loses their job because of it, they probably wouldn’t be able to collect unemployment insurance, so long as the rules are reasonable and clearly communicated.
“Vaccine mandates, either by the government or by policy, are effectively a condition of employment,” Weldon said.
On the flip side, Weldon said the state DLT is likely to look at things differently if an employer decided that everyone had to be fully vaccinated, tomorrow, no exceptions. That, Weldon said, would be unreasonable. Two of the authorized COVID-19 vaccines require two shots, several weeks apart. The state’s health care workers, though, have already had several weeks notice, Weldon noted, and the DLT wouldn’t look at the situation any differently even if there wasn’t an option to get tested instead of getting vaccinated.
Weldon said the state would take on a case-by-case basis someone who lost their job because they declined to take a COVID-19 vaccine for medical or religious reasons. The religious exemption would be the more complicated of the two, and would require, at a minimum, a conversation with the employee and the employer. It would be more than just someone ticking off a box that they lost their job because they refused for religious reasons to get vaccinated, and then collecting unemployment.
The state’s two largest hospital systems, Lifespan and Care New England, both said they’re working to persuade their staff to get the shot.
“Lifespan’s infectious diseases and vaccine experts and peers are being made available to discuss individual employee concerns, respectfully and with empathy to make sure they have the most up-to-date information on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine,” Lifespan spokeswoman Kathleen Hart said in an email.
Hart said workers who are only partially vaccinated by the deadline won’t be able to return to work until they’re fully vaccinated. Employees who don’t have plans to be vaccinated by Oct. 1 “will be terminated,” Hart said, but “we will welcome all staff back to work if they choose to get fully vaccinated.”
The nation’s unemployment safety net, including here in Rhode Island, is in a state of flux. Enhanced benefits for people on regular unemployment, as well as pandemic unemployment assistance for gig workers, have run out. This weekend was the first time when people on those sorts of programs have had their claims rejected. They’ve been reaching out to DLT, Weldon said; he’s encouraging them to get back into the workforce.
Weldon said he’s hearing from employers in the state who say they’ve gotten more job applications in the past month than they have in the past year. Weldon said anyone who’s looking for work can go to BackToWorkRI.com for a clearinghouse of information.
“We know people are getting back to work, filling out job applications, and using our resources,” Weldon said. “We want to make sure they know what the services are.”