CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia lawmakers have advanced a proposal that would allow people who leave their jobs because they are denied a religious or medical exemption to the COVID-19 vaccination to receive unemployment benefits.
Republican Sen. Mark Maynard, a sponsor of Senate Bill 576, said Thursday that the legislation was designed with healthcare workers in mind.
“Our frontline health care workers were required to be in the midst of this battle with COVID in the years 2020 and 2021 without even an option,” he said, speaking on the Senate floor. “When the mandates started rolling in, they had to make a decision.”
As more employers have mandated that their workers become vaccinated against COVID-19, at least five Republican-led states — Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, and Tennessee — have passed bills extending unemployment benefits to those who have lost work because of COVID-19 vaccine requirements, with more than a dozen more proposals under consideration in other state legislatures.
A number of West Virginia hospitals have mandated that employees be vaccinated against COVID-19, including two of the largest health care networks: the West Virginia University Health System and Charleston Area Medical Center.
“This piece of legislation merely defends some of those that want to opt out on the vaccination,” Maynard said. “This gives them a little bit of a cushion to figure out what they’re going to do with their life.”
The bill passed the Senate 29-5 and will now be considered by the full House.
Usually, people who quit their jobs aren’t eligible for unemployment, unless they had “good cause” to leave. Maynard said people who are opposed to getting the COVID-19 vaccine for medical or religious reasons should be protected.
Democratic Sen. Stephen Baldwin spoke in support of the bill. He said that when he initially read the legislation, he assumed he would vote against it.
“It seemed just like another politicized COVID bill,” he said.
But as he sat down to read it more thoroughly, Baldwin said he started thinking about it differently.
“I don’t think this bill is about COVID. This bill is about workers’ rights,” he said. “What this bill does is it protects workers to ensure that they have transitional employment support.”
Just over 53% of West Virginia residents are fully vaccinated, according to data from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.