Damakant Jayshi

State Republican legislators introduced a bill last week that aims to provide unemployment wages to employees who refuse to abide by an employer’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate as a condition of employment.

Their rationale for the bill, introduced on Thursday, is to protect individual liberty and workers’ personal right to choose. 

Wisconsin is not the first state to consider such a measure. Across the country, Republicans in recent weeks introduced similar legislation that addresses mandatory vaccines and masking with varying levels of success. According to Husch Blackwell, a firm that tracks vaccine-related legislation nationwide, a number of states, including Alabama and Montana, have passed some version of the ban into law.

One co-sponsor defended the bill.

“In Wisconsin you are entitled to unemployment insurance unless you are fired for meeting two narrow legal categories: misconduct or substantial fault,” Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) told Wausau Pilot & Review. “This bill would simply clarify that refusing to make or disclose this personal medical decision would not disqualify you for unemployment.”

The other three lead sponsors of the bill introduced last week are Reps. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville), Dan Knodl (R-Germantown) and Rick Gundrum (R-Slinger). None responded to request for comment for this story. Wausau Pilot & Review also has yet to hear from Rep. Pat Snyder (R-Schofield) and Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) on their positions and response to the bill.

Critics say the legislation is a striking contrast to efforts by state Republicans, including sponsors of the bill, who recently sought to place tighter restrictions on unemployment benefits. Others say the legislation is unnecessary at this time.

“It’s sort of a solution looking for a problem,” Lowell Pearson, a managing partner at Husch Blackwell said last month. “We’re not seeing really any broad sense that employers are requiring vaccines in office settings, in manufacturing settings and other places like that.”

Until very recently, state Republican lawmakers were calling for an end to additional weekly unemployment benefits. 

“This bill is not an unemployment extension. This bill, if it became law, would only apply if an employer required vaccines to work,” Stroebel said. “Employers are already choosing to limit their workforce pool by pursuing mandatory vaccine policies.”

Democrats have criticized such efforts.

“It seems Republicans only want to give unemployment benefits to the very people who are putting our state at risk for another crushing wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations by refusing to get vaccinated,” Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) told WXOW. 

Health officials say vaccines are saving lives, despite instances of breakthrough infections. In Wisconsin, the vaccination rate hovers at about 50 percent.

But should the bill pass in the state Legislature, its future is already on shaky ground. Almost immediately after news of the bill emerged, Gov. Tony Evers’ office announced the governor’s intentions for the proposal should it reach his desk. 

“@GovEvers will veto this bill,” tweeted spokesperson Britt Cudaback, just before 6 p.m. Thursday. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) strongly recommended vaccination and masking. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an organization that enforces workplace anti-discrimination laws, stated that existing laws do not prevent employers from following vaccine guidelines from CDC and state or local health agencies.

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.