A man holds a sign outside Florida's state Capitol in Tallahassee on Nov. 16 during a special legislative session considering bills targeting covid-19 vaccine mandates. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Once upon a time, states debated whether to pay people to get vaccinated. Now, some red states are paying people not to get vaccinated, by cutting checks to workers who quit or are fired because they refuse covid-19 shots.
All spring and summer, Republicans cried bloody murder about how too-generous unemployment benefits were supposedly discouraging Americans from returning to work. Expanded jobless benefits were creating welfare queens, they argued, and driving labor shortages and hurting small businesses.
As I wrote at the time, it seemed reasonable to believe that at least for some workers, jobless benefits were a factor weighed when deciding whether to accept or reject available jobs. But lots of other factors mattered, too — including child-care availability, fear of getting ill, transit problems, changing family priorities, the wages offered and burnout. Ultimately, those other factors seemed to matter more. Expanded pandemic benefits ended, first in a few GOP-controlled states (over the summer) and eventually nationwide (in September). Their lapse appeared to have little impact on job growth.
That didn’t stop some Republican politicians from continuing to blame labor shortages on unemployment benefits even after the offending federal programs had expired nationwide. Their talking point long outlasted its plausible relevance.
Now, Republicans are expanding these laziness-inducing benefits once again — but only for workers who refuse shots.
At least four states — Florida, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee — have recently extended benefits to workers who are fired or quit over their employers’ vaccine requirements. For context, workers who are fired for cause or who quit voluntarily are usually not eligible to receive unemployment benefits. With limited exceptions, only those laid off through no fault of their own have been able to receive such aid. Incidentally, most of the states implementing this new policy had earlier rejected calls from President Biden to use federal relief funds to issue $100 payments to inoculated individuals. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R), for instance, said this summer that it wasn’t “the role of government” to financially incentivize vaccines. Follow Catherine Rampell‘s opinionsFollow At least not vaccines for humans, anyway. Over the past two years, Tennessee has sent almost half a million dollars to farmers for vaccinating their cattle against various ailments, according to the Associated Press. So, apparently, that’s an appropriate role for government. Incentivizing Americans to refuse coronavirus vaccines is not pro-life. It’s not small-government. It’s not pro-growth. And it’s not pro-personal responsibility. So why are Republicans doing it?
A recent report from Axios argues that these policy changes are primarily about building “loyalty with unvaccinated Americans”: “Republicans see a prime opportunity to rally their base ahead of the midterms,” Axios reports. Maybe that’s true. Maybe this is about showing important political constituencies that Republicans have their backs. There have also been some examples of officials in bluer areas refusing to confront their anti-vaccine allies, and sometimes even effectively paying them not to get shots, as well. A Nevada school district, for example, paid public workers overtime to get tested regularly if they refused coronavirus vaccines.
But building solidarity with fellow culture warriors isn’t the only benefit for Republicans. These policies also undermine federal efforts to get the pandemic under control, which the right then blames Biden for not controlling. They also might help sabotage the economic recovery, which the right will also blame Biden for not sufficiently juicing. Of course, the magnitude of the economic effect of these unemployment-benefit policies alone may be tiny, at least based on that recent experience with other unemployment benefit expansions. But that’s not what Republicans have said they believe. And remember, these unemployment benefit expansions are just one among many anti-vaccine actions Republicans have taken. There’s been some debate on the left about whether the GOP’s covid denialism is simply misguided or whether it is driven by a cynical attempt to sink the economy. On the one hand, as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait has observed, Republicans have trashed efforts to mitigate covid (shutdowns, mask-wearing) as far back as early 2020, when President Donald Trump was still in office.
On the other hand: Since then, 777,000 Americans have died of the illness, and we’ve developed an economically painless tool — vaccination — to save lives. A tool developed under Trump, no less! GOP politicians and right-wing media have sown suspicion in this miraculous measure all the same. Some also seem to be openly cheering for an economic crash. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), for example, recently described the prospect of unfavorable economic conditions next year as a “gold mine” for his party heading into the midterms.
Whatever their motivation, Republicans seem to be rooting for the virus — and against the country.