UNEMPLOYMENT – DISQUALIFIED FOR REFUSAL TO GET COVID VACCINE
This is a 2023 case from the Colorado Court of Appeals. Pursuant to the unemployment statute, the Court of Appeals is the highest court which can review unemployment cases.
Bara worked as an office manager for Mental Health CTR of Boulder County, Inc. (MHC). In September 2021, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, MHC mandated that all employees either receive a COVID-19 vaccination or submit a request for a medical or religious exemption by an identified deadline (vaccine rule). Bara declined to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and neither sought nor was granted an exemption, so MHC terminated her employment. Bara then applied for unemployment benefits. An Industrial Claim Appeals Office Panel (Panel) concluded that Bara’s failure to follow the vaccine rule could have resulted in serious damage to MHC’s interests, thus disqualifying her from unemployment benefits. The Panel also concluded that Bara was disqualified for deliberate disobedience of an employer’s reasonable instruction, and it found that her failure to comply with the vaccine rule was under her control.
CRS § 8-73-108(5)(e)(VII) disqualifies a person from receiving unemployment benefits if the employment separation was due to that person’s volitional violation of a company rule and resulted or could have resulted in serious damage to the employer’s property or interests, or could have endangered the life of the worker or other persons. Here, the undisputed evidence at the unemployment benefits hearing showed that Bara’s separation from employment was based on her volitional violation of a company rule that could result in serious damage to MHC’s interests. Accordingly, MHC did not have to offer Bara reasonable alternatives to vaccination. Therefore, the Panel correctly determined that Bara was disqualified from unemployment benefits under CRS § 8-73-108(5)(e)(VII). Based on this conclusion, the court of appeals did not address the Panel’s conclusion that Bara was also disqualified for deliberate disobedience of an employer’s reasonable instruction.
Bara also argued that it wasn’t reasonable for MHC to apply the vaccine rule to remote employees. However, Bara’s office manager position was an in-office rather than a remote position. MHC’s accommodation to work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic was temporary, and it adopted the vaccine rule to prepare for employees to return to the office. But even assuming MHC allowed Bara a further extension to remain remote, its vaccine rule was appropriate to accomplish its legitimate business interests because it was implemented to protect the health and safety of MHC’s employees, clients, and partners; to maintain its federal funding; and to better serve its clients.