The Florida Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021. Credit: Michael Moline/Florida Phoenix
The state of Florida would pay workers to quit their jobs by giving them unemployment benefits rather than submit to vaccine mandates under legislation filed for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ special session of the Legislature, due to convene next week.
That’s a provision of SB 2, one of four bills introduced as part of the governor’s campaign against vaccine and mask mandates in workplaces and public schools. The state also has filed lawsuits seeking to overturn President Joe Biden’s plan to require vaccinations for businesses, health care providers, and federal contractors.
“Reemployment benefits are there as support for unlawfully terminated employees. Our goal with the legislation is to provide significant options for employers and employees, so we would hope that these options are utilized and employers are not terminating employees unlawfully,” Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Danny Burgess, sponsor of the bill, told the Phoenix by text message.
The move would set a remarkable precedent, however, according to Rich Templin, legislative and policy director for the Florida AFL-CIO.
“It’ll be the first time that a voluntary quit is eligible for payment,” he said in a telephone interview.
“When we tried to change the law so that women being in an abusive situation and needing to leave their job because of that situation, the business community always called that a voluntary quit and said that should not be permissible. We finally got that law changed,” Templin said.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Chamber of Commerce did not respond to a request for information about the organization’s take on the provision.
DeSantis set a different tone in May when his administration announced it was cutting off enhanced federal unemployment benefits, authorized amid widespread joblessness caused by COVID-related business retrenchment. He and legislative Republicans had been complaining that businesses couldn’t find enough workers.
“The reason is simple: We’ve got almost a half-a-million job openings in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said at the time of the decision.
SB 2 would allow full- or part-time workers or contractors to opt out of any vaccine mandates for medical reasons including pregnancy or plans to become pregnant, subject to documentation by a doctor, physician’s assistant, or advanced-practice registered nurse; attestation to sincerely held religious beliefs; immunity based previous infection as documented by lab tests; agreement to undergo regular coronavirus testing; or agreement to wear personal protective equipment on the job site.
Notably, the Biden mandates for businesses and contractors allow workers to wear personal protective equipment or submit to regular testing as an alternative to vaccinations. The medical-facility rule envisions universal vaccination but does provide exemptions for religious or medical reasons.
Under the proposed Florida law, any employer that refuses any exemption anyway can be reported to the state Department of Legal Affairs, also known as the attorney general’s office, which would tell the employer to shape up.
If a worker still loses his or her job, the department can impose fines of up to $10,000 for employers of fewer than 100 workers or $50,000 for those with 100 or more workers — although employers could avoid those penalties by reinstating workers.
“The bill provides an appeal process for employers who believe they properly applied the law,” wrote Burgess, a Republican representing parts of Pasco, Polk, and Hillsborough counties.
Workers fired under these circumstances would be eligible to draw unemployment insurance and couldn’t be forced to take a new job if it also requires vaccination. In other words, the measure would provide a way out for worker adamant about refusing vaccines.
“Reemployment benefits are there as support for unlawfully terminated employees. Our goal with the legislation is to provide significant options for employers and employees, so we would hope that these options are utilized and employers are not terminating employees unlawfully,” Burgess wrote.
That could prove cold comfort: Florida has usually paid a maximum $275 per week for 12 weeks in unemployment compensation, among the stingiest payouts in the country. (During periods in the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government supplemented states’ unemployment benefits.) The GOP-dominated Legislature refused repeated entreaties by Democrats to be more generous during its regular session lasts spring.
Anna Eskamani, a Democratic House member from Orange County, has been one of the governor’s foremost critics on unemployment policy, particularly the collapse of the Connect web interface for people seeking jobless benefits during a spike in applications during the pandemic.
She and her aides have helped more than 50,000 people from around the state secure benefits, Eskamani said via text message.
“The fact that Gov. DeSantis barely lifted a finger to assist Floridians with their unemployment benefits — even killing our efforts to increase the benefits by $100 [per week] this past legislative session — and is now trying to reform UI for people who quit their jobs due to vaccine requirements is a joke,” Eskamani wrote.
“There are STILL problems Floridians are facing with the Connect website and zero leadership from him. This is just another example of Gov. DeSantis distracting the public and politicizing public health.”
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