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Iowa Allows Employees to Seek Medical or Religious Exemption from Mandatory Vaccine Policies and Permits Those Terminated for Refusal to Vaccinate to Qualify for Unemployment Benefits

Effective October 29, 2021, the House File 902 was signed into legislation which requires Iowa employers who’ve implemented mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies to allow employees to seek an exemption for religious or medical purposes. In addition, employees who have recently been separated because of refusing to abide by an employer’s mandatory vaccination policy, will now be eligible to receive state unemployment insurance benefits.

Waiver Requirements

According to the Governor’s bill, an employer that requires an employee to receive a COVID-19 vaccine shall waive the requirement if the employee, or, a minor employee’s parent or legal guardian, requests a waiver and submits either of the following to the employer:

  • A statement that receiving the vaccine would be injurious to the health and well-being of the employee or an individual residing with the employee.
  • A statement that receiving the vaccine would “conflict with the tenets and practices of a religion of which the employee is an adherent or member.”

Protection from Separation

Furthermore, the legislation protects ex-employees who have been discharged from employment for refusing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and prevents them from being disqualified for unemployment benefits on account of the discharge.” For employees who have recently undergone separations because of failing to be vaccinated, claims for unemployment insurance won’t count against the employer. According to the newly signed act, “the contribution rate and unemployment experience of any employer employing the employee, or an employer that previously employed the employee other than the employer that so discharged the employee, shall be unaffected by such discharge.”

Next Steps for Employers

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently proposed an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) that would mandate employers with 100+ employee be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or be subject to weekly testing. At this time, the implementation of the ETS has halted awaiting the appeal of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court’s decision. Until then, it remains unclear whether Iowa’s recent legislation will contradict the OSHA ETS. As a result, employers are encouraged to consult with their legal counsel for assistance with navigating this legislation.

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