September 30, 2021 Article

Employees Who Refuse to Comply with a Mandatory Vaccination Policy are Generally Ineligible to Receive Unemployment Benefits

Following a nationwide spike in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, an increasing number of Maine private businesses and colleges have joined the healthcare industry in requiring workers to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19. Vaccine mandates have met opposition around the state as some employees either refuse to comply or threaten to quit. However, employees who resign or are discharged for failing to comply with an employer's mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy generally will not qualify for unemployment benefits.

Under Maine law, employees can be disqualified from benefits for actions constituting "misconduct." Misconduct is defined, in relevant part, as the "unreasonable violation of rules that are reasonably imposed and communicated and equitably enforced." This means that if an employee is terminated for breaking company policy, the employee will be denied unemployment benefits. An employer's vaccination policy is generally considered reasonable, much like any other workplace policy. As such, according to the Maine Department of Labor and subject to a few limited exceptions, an employee who refuses to comply with the policy will be ineligible to receive unemployment benefits on grounds of misconduct. See Maine Department of Labor, COVID 19 Unemployment and Related Federal Programs.

In seeking unemployment benefits, separated employees who were either terminated or who resigned after their request for disability or religious accommodations were denied may attempt to challenge the reasonableness of the employer's policy or the reasonableness of the employer's denial. To contest such claims, employers should be prepared to document that they had a clear policy, that the employee received the policy, and that the employee refused to comply. If a request for accommodation was made, the employer should be prepared to show why the accommodation was denied.