Commentary

GOP says unemployment benefits hurt Iowa, except when they’re for the unvaccinated

November 1, 2021 8:00 am

A few hundred people gathered at the Iowa Capitol Oct. 28, 2021 to protest vaccine mandates. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Remember way back in June, when unemployment benefits were killing Iowa’s economy?

Gov. Kim Reynolds couldn’t wait until extended federal benefits expired in September, so she ended them three months early. She blamed unemployment benefits for the fact that employers were having trouble filling open positions.

“Federal pandemic-related unemployment benefit programs initially provided displaced Iowans with crucial assistance when the pandemic began,” Reynolds said in a press release announcing the change in May. “But now that our businesses and schools have reopened, these payments are discouraging people from returning to work.”

Two weeks ago, Reynolds announced new requirements for people to collect unemployment benefits, including increased job-search requirements and weekly meetings with Iowa Workforce Development staff designed to match them with available jobs. She cited a shortage of workers.

“The workforce shortage is the primary obstacle standing in the way of really turning that encouraging, short-term trajectory into long-term, broad-based progress,” Reynolds said at a news conference Oct. 20.

Last week, Reynolds signed a bill, approved during a special legislative session, that creates wide-open waivers to prevent the unvaccinated from losing their jobs. The bill also guarantees unemployment benefits for people who choose to lose their jobs rather than get vaccinated against COVID-19.

What about all those open jobs?

Wait, what? Surely, freedom-loving Iowans who would rather walk off the job than get a safe, effective shot would have no problem snapping up one of the thousands of available jobs in the state. What employer wouldn’t want to hire someone who’s willing to risk spreading an easily preventable but potentially fatal disease to their customers and coworkers?

It’s hard to imagine why these independent and self-sufficient Americans who don’t trust the government would need a handout just because they refuse to protect themselves and their families. After all, the people they infect who lose their jobs because they’re too sick to work have been regularly denied unemployment benefits.

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That’s not the only contradiction in the bill. It was supposedly intended to protect the jobs of people who don’t want to get vaccinated, for whatever reason. It specifies that employers must grant waivers to anyone who says they object to a vaccine because they think it may harm their health or because it’s against their religion.

Waivers are entirely appropriate if there’s an actual mandate. People with a genuine health condition that precludes a vaccine or who have a religious prohibition against them should not lose their jobs. This bill doesn’t bother separating out people with actual excuses. No need for a doctor’s note or letter from a pastor; anyone who says they have an issue can have a waiver.

And yet, it offers unemployment benefits in an obvious admission that the bill doesn’t prevent employers with vaccine mandates from firing workers who refuse a jab. There are no penalties for employers who fire unvaccinated workers.

Waiver for vaccines but not COVID testing

Even the unemployment benefit promise is a fig leaf. Under new federal vaccine regulations that President Biden announced (but are not yet implemented) for large employers, regular COVID-19 testing can be imposed for workers who refuse a vaccine. There is no waiver or unemployment guarantee in Iowa’s new law for unvaccinated workers who are fired because they refuse testing.

Reynolds has continued to encourage Iowans to get vaccinated, acknowledging it’s the only way the state will get past the pandemic. And yet she and fellow Republicans won’t stop trying to pander to those who spread misinformation and lies about the safety and efficacy of these vaccines. The problem is, they also want to cater to large employers who don’t want the state to meddle in their workplaces.

Anti-vaxx activists who swarmed the Statehouse during the Oct. 28 special session recognized the legislation was a sham. Chants of “kill the bill” arose a soon as they saw the text and realized it was far short of a ban on vaccine mandates. The same thing happened last spring, after GOP lawmakers rushed through a bill banning “vaccine passports” that stopped short of telling employers they could not require vaccines for their workers.

Democrats, most of whom voted for the bill last week, cited the lack of any real effect of the legislation, as well as their support for unemployment insurance. They seemed to enjoy the fact that the GOP majority was angering the very group this legislation was presumably trying to appease.

So why bother? Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, floor manager of the vaccine waiver bill, made it clear the bill was about political messaging. He went on and on about the “authoritarianism” of the Biden administration, even after he had been admonished to keep his remarks to the bill.

This certainly isn’t the first time we’ve seen Iowa lawmakers pass bills for no other reason than to send a political message. It’s been happening regularly the last few years. But if Republicans were trying to send a message with this bill, they should have made sure it didn’t contradict all their previous messages about how easy it is to find a great job in Iowa and how unemployment benefits are holding the state back.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.

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