File-Indiana State Rep. Tom Lehman, R-Berne

Indiana House Majority Leader Matt Lehman, R-Berne, left, speaks during a state legislative hearing as Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, right, watches Nov. 23 at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. Numerous Indiana medical and business groups argued against a proposal sponsored by Lehman aimed at ending the statewide COVID-19 public health emergency and forcing broad exemptions from workplace vaccination requirements.  

(The Center Square) – At a recent hearing for a bill that would strengthen exemptions from employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Indiana, Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said he wants the bill to include a provision that requires employers to pay for unemployment for those fired for not taking the vaccine.

In introducing House Bill 1001 earlier this month, Lehman said money to pay unemployment claims is normally pooled, but he said he wants the legislation to place the responsibility solely on the employer who fired the employee.

“It would only apply to the dollars coming out of the terminating entity,” said Lehman, the bill’s author. “So, if you let someone go because of this, it’s solely going to be on your back.”

HB 1001 says employers in the state mandating the vaccine “must allow” exemptions, and in particular must grant religious exemptions if the employee writes a letter saying he’s declining the vaccine because of a “sincerely held religious belief.” It also outlines exemptions for medical reasons and for natural immunity six months following recovery from the COVID-19 virus and says employers must also allow an option to test in lieu of getting the vaccine.

The bill prohibits employers from taking “adverse employment action” against an employee because they’ve requested or been granted an exemption.

Lehman said legislators will likely go further, to clarify that employees who apply for exemptions and are then fired are not disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits.

“We heard testimony a couple weeks ago that there are some entities that are kind of moving in that path of, ‘If you choose to file for an exemption and that exemption is denied, you are agreeing to voluntarily leave your employment,’ and that is not a voluntary action and that really becomes an issue around eligibility for unemployment,” Lehman said.

At a November hearing on draft language, several nurses from Ascension St. Vincent hospitals testified that in applying for an exemption from Ascension’s vaccine mandate in an online portal, they had to check a box saying they agreed to be “voluntarily resigned” from their jobs if they hadn’t gotten the vaccine by Jan. 4.

Robert Rodenbush, a pastor and an attorney, also testified on November 23, telling legislators that employees were given no other choice but to check this box in order to complete the online exemption request, and employees who resign are ineligible for unemployment compensation.

Rodenbush, who has a law office in Indianapolis, is representing several Ascension employees, and said he and three other attorneys in Indiana are together representing close to 150 Ascension employees.

“I don’t think people should be required to sign their future employment rights away just to make a request,” he said.

About 150 Ascension employees were suspended without pay on Nov 12, and could be terminated Jan. 4.

“Obviously, going into the holiday, that was a pretty heavy thing to have to deal with,” Rodenbush said.

The employees, he said, have now been without pay for going on six weeks, with Christmas just around the corner.

Rodenbush says he’s filed a claim on behalf of some Ascension employees with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Last Friday, Ascension began calling suspended employees, and asking them to come back, saying the company has changed its policies and is now approving their exemptions. But Rodenbush and other attorneys are not recommending they return to work without something in writing.

He said he thinks HB 1001 may solve the issue of employees being unable to qualify for unemployment.

“I would certainly be in favor of some of those safeguards because it’s certainly put some of those ‘voluntarily resigned’ employees in a difficult spot,” he said.