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Republicans are fans of unemployment insurance if it undermines vaccine mandates

Republican-led states are changing their tune on unemployment benefits for the wrong reasons
Illustration of vaccine syringes and stacks of American money.
Republicans in several states are loosening eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits to protect people who are fired for refusing to get vaccinated in accordance with companies' requirements.MSNBC; Getty Images

Republicans are constantly concerned about how unemployment insurance could lead to societal ruin; they strive to restrict it, arguing that making it too generous could make not having a job more appealing than having one, and derail the economy. Amid a global pandemic, congressional Republicans lobbied hard against a lifesaving and poverty-reducing federal boost to unemployment insurance based on the largely dubious claim that it was driving a labor shortage.

But in several states they control, Republicans have now taken up the unusual cause of loosening eligibility for unemployment insurance and making it more accessible. And they’re doing it for a very particular set of people: anti-vaxxers.

The concern among Republicans that easily accessible unemployment benefits will cripple the economy seems to have vanished.

In general in the U.S., if employees voluntarily quit or are fired for cause, including violating company policy, they’re not eligible for unemployment benefits. But according to The Washington Post, the Republican-led states of Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee have “carved out exceptions for those who won’t submit to the multi-shot coronavirus vaccine regimens that many companies now require.” And Wyoming, Wisconsin and Missouri are considering similar exceptions.

Republicans have framed these policy moves as a bid for freedom from the tyranny of vaccination mandates from employers and the federal government. (Never mind that President Joe Biden’s vaccination rule for larger companies allows them to offer employees the option to get tested weekly if they refuse to get vaccinated.) The policy has even put the GOP at odds with lobbyists for business interests, who are concerned that the policy could lead to more taxes on employers, which is how unemployment insurance is funded.

The concern among Republicans that easily accessible unemployment benefits will cripple the economy seems to have magically vanished.

Dean Baker, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told me over email that he doesn't think it will have a large effect on behavior, but that to the extent it could, it could fulfill Republicans' alleged nightmares about government aid as an incentive for corruption:

I suspect the largest effect will be that a number of people will lie about their vaccination status in order to get fired and get unemployment insurance benefits. To be clear, I doubt that will be a large number of people, but in terms of changing behavior, I suspect more people will get benefits as a result of wrongly claiming they weren't vaccinated than will avoid getting vaccinated, and now get fired, because they know the state will give them unemployment insurance benefits.

I am sort of charmed by the GOP’s newfound commitment to a more accessible welfare state. It’s a quiet admission that a robust safety net is a way to protect the people’s well-being from tyranny in the workplace.

But nowhere in this mandate-hostile worldview is there a serious commitment to the freedom of the nearly three-quarters of adults in the U.S. who have gotten vaccinated not to be subjected to the increased risk of being around the imperiously unvaccinated. Many in the GOP have made it clear that they find the freedom to expose others to harm to be their greatest cause.

Meanwhile Republicans have little interest in generous unemployment insurance for the overall worker population in a country with pervasive at-will employment, low unionization rates, and commonplace exploitation and abuse in the workplace. It's sad that the emergence of new norms requiring respect for the health of fellow workers during a brutal pandemic is the only thing that could cause a very narrow change of heart for them.