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Employee Awarded Unemployment Benefits after Vaccine Refusal

Posted on March 18, 2024

While it may seem that the world has moved on from the COVID-19 pandemic, cases related to employer vaccine mandates are still making their way through the courts. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently awarded unemployment benefits to an employee who was terminated for non-compliance with her employer’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

In October 2021, the employer, a large healthcare provider, adopted a policy requiring all employees who worked at is elder care sites and had physical contact with patients to provide proof that they are vaccinated against COVID-19 by November 8, 2021. The policy was adopted pursuant to a mandate from the Massachusetts Executive Department of Health and Human Services.

The employee, a home health aide who had worked for the employer for four years, asked to be exempt from the requirement and submitted a request for religious accommodation.  She indicated that her religious beliefs conflicted with the vaccine requirement, and she provided a letter from her pastor to support her request for an exemption.  The employee offered to wear protective gear and submit to frequent testing.  The employer denied the request and discharged the employee, believing that there were no reasonable accommodations that would adequately protect its patients.

The Department of Unemployment Assistance initially denied the request for benefits, but at a hearing requested by the employee the benefits were granted.  The employer then appealed the decision to the DUA’s board of review, which affirmed the decision to grant the benefits.  The employer subsequently sought judicial review in a district court, which again affirmed the award of benefits.  The SJC took up the case on its own motion.

In reviewing an agency’s decision, the court reviews the case “de novo,” meaning that it will look at all the facts from the beginning.  The court is also required to grant substantial deference to the agency charged with enforcement of a law.  The facts in this case were undisputed, so the SJC interpreted the unemployment law as it applied the employee’s award of benefits.

An individual may be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits if the cause of an employee’s termination is one of the following two reasons, set out at M.G.L. ch. § 25(e)(2):

  • deliberate misconduct in willful disregard of the employing unit’s interest; or
  • a knowing violation of a reasonable and uniformly enforced rule or policy of the employer, provided that such violation is not shown to be as a result of the employee’s incompetence.

The SJC determined that the employee’s good faith effort to comply with the policy contradicts the employer’s position that she engaged in deliberate misconduct.  And even if her failure to get vaccinated was deliberate misconduct, she did not demonstrate “willful disregard” of the employer’s interest by offering to take measures to ensure the patients’ safety.

Next, the court analyzed the employer’s view that the employee had committed a “knowing violation of a reasonable and uniformly enforced” policy of the employer.  For this analysis, the DUA can consider mitigating circumstances related to the violation.  The court found that her sincere religious beliefs mitigated the knowingness of the violation, as the “unique circumstances here did not present [the employee] with a meaningful choice.”

In reaching its decision, the SJC agreed with the DUA that this employee’s violation of her employer’s policy is not the type of violation that the legislature intended to bar from eligibility for unemployment benefits.

Members with questions about unemployment eligibility, or any other human resources matter may reach out to the AIM HR Helpline at 800-470-6277.