Iowan who quit her job after refusing COVID-19 vaccine is denied jobless benefits

By: - August 2, 2022 4:30 pm

An Iowan who quit her job selling medical respiratory products after refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine has been denied jobless benefits. (Photo by Getty Images)

An Iowa woman who quit her job selling medical respiratory products after refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine is not entitled to unemployment benefits, a judge has ruled.

In January, Anne Wagner quit her job with the medical supplier Lincare, where she had worked for 13 years selling respirator products to assisted living facilities, medical clinics and hospitals.

From the beginning of her employment, Wagner had participated in Lincare’s employer-sponsored, BlueCross-BlueShield health insurance program. In October 2021, Lincare sent an email to all employees noting that a $50 surcharge, imposed each pay period, would be added to the health care coverage costs of any workers who were not vaccinated against COVID-19. Exceptions were allowed for those who claimed that medical conditions or deeply held religious beliefs barred them from getting the vaccine.

While continued health care coverage was contingent on employees either getting the vaccination or paying the surcharge, workers who refused both the vaccine and the surcharge could still remain employed at Lincare.

Wagner did not seek an exemption from the vaccine requirement, but did send her employer a message stating, “Receiving the vaccine would be injurious to my health and wellbeing.”

A judge would later find that Wagner was operating “under the erroneous belief that she had contracted and recovered from COVID-19 in 2019,” which predated the arrival of the COVID-19 in Iowa by several months. Wagner had also concluded that because of this prior “infection,” she was immune from COVID-19.

In January, Wagner notified Lincare she was resigning, and she then applied for unemployment benefits.

At the time, she may have been relying on a law approved by the Iowa Legislature and the governor last fall. That law states that any individual who is discharged from employment for refusing to receive a vaccination against COVID-19 cannot be disqualified from collecting unemployment benefits.

After Lincare challenged Wagner’s application for unemployment benefits, the dispute went before Administrative Law Judge James Timberland. He ruled recently that Wagner had voluntarily quit her job without good cause and was therefore ineligible for unemployment. He noted the vaccine-surcharge requirements affected only her health care coverage, not her continued employment at Lincare.

Wagner’s “employment was at no point in jeopardy, whether based on a refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or otherwise,” Timberland ruled. “The employer never conditioned (her) continued employment on submission to COVID-19 vaccination.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.