Talking Points

Republicans are suddenly in favor of unemployment benefits — for anti-vaxxers

If you live in Kansas and get fired from your job for refusing to take a COVID vaccine, at least you'll be able to collect unemployment checks.

The state's GOP-controlled legislature met in a special session on Monday to push back against President Biden's vaccine mandates. By the end of the day, legislators agreed to a bill that creates an expansive religious exemption from employer requirements to get the jab — "a lot of people are going to find Jesus and that's fantastic," one official cracked — but also ensures that anti-vaxxers don't have to worry about getting fired for their refusal because they'll still get paid. Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat who has already come out against Biden's mandate, said she will sign the legislation.

Protecting anti-vax workers from the consequences of losing their jobs is not a new idea: Iowa passed similar legislation last month, and it's likely other Republican-dominated states will follow. What makes all of this very interesting is that the GOP rarely goes out of its way to strengthen unemployment protections. 

Long before the pandemic started, conservatives often went out of their way to make collecting benefits difficult for the newly jobless. In 2017, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) helped pass legislation for states to subject unemployment recipients to drug testing. Before that, in 2015, a study found that Florida's notoriously cumbersome unemployment system was "virtually inaccessible" for most people — just one in eight jobless workers in the state were collecting benefits at that point. 

GOP attitudes didn't change after COVID hit the country. In March 2020, when workers were losing their jobs by the hundreds of thousands, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) weighed in against being too generous with benefits. "We cannot encourage people to make more money in unemployment than they do in employment," he said. More recently, a number of Republican-led states cut off their COVID-era enhanced jobless benefits in order to prod their citizens back to work. Unemployment insurance ends up "incentivizing and paying workers to stay at home rather than encouraging them to return to the workplace," South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, said in May.

The upshot of all this is that workers who hesitated to expose themselves to illness or had to stay home to take care of kids were punished by Republicans, but those who refuse their responsibility to help halt the spread of COVID just might be rewarded. And while the GOP generally hates handing out unemployment benefits, the party's officials have decided to make an extraordinary exception for their own most devoted voters. It's a racket.