Discover more from Vulgar Marxism
New York Cuts Off Food Stamps to Workers Who Were Fired for Defying Vaccine Mandates
The government is punishing workers for its own failures of public health. But a number of elected progressives are speaking out against the policy.
Municipal employees protest New York City’s vaccine mandate this week ahead of expected terminations on Friday. Photo by Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News.
Toward the end of last year, state and local governments across the country began requiring public and private sector workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. While the vast majority of workers in these jurisdictions complied with the mandates, many did not, leading to questions about their eligibility for unemployment benefits and other social services. Unemployment insurance is administered by the states, which evaluate claims on a case-by-case basis and enjoy significant latitude in setting their own criteria for eligibility.
For these reasons, it can be challenging to speak in general terms about who may be eligible for benefits, and under what circumstances. Still, a legal consensus emerged that in most cases, refusal to comply with a vaccine mandate constitutes just cause for termination, making such workers ineligible for relief. Accordingly, GOP-controlled legislatures in four states voted to open a new front in the culture war and extend unemployment benefits to workers who lost their jobs after refusing the vaccine.
Scandalized commentary soon appeared in the press, chastising Republicans for undermining the mandates’ efficacy. Just last week, the Century Foundation - a progressive think tank - expressed a similar sentiment: “If such workers feel that they can fall back on unemployment benefits, they may feel less compelled to get vaccinated.” This logic has also been adopted by Democratic policymakers in states like New York, where the Department of Labor has issued the following guidance:
“Workers in a healthcare facility, nursing home, or school who voluntarily quit or are terminated for refusing an employer-mandated vaccination will be ineligible for UI absent a valid request for accommodation because these are workplaces where an employer has a compelling interest in such a mandate, especially if they already require other immunizations.
Similarly, a public employee who works in a public setting and is subject to a local government mandate to submit proof of vaccination or negative testing may be disqualified from the receipt of UI if they refuse to get vaccinated or tested.
In contrast, a worker who refuses an employer’s directive to get vaccinated may be eligible for UI in some cases, if that person’s work has no public exposure and the worker has a compelling reason for refusing to comply with the directive.”
In September 2021, Republican State Senator Alexis Weik of Suffolk County rolled out a bill to protect jobless benefits for the unvaccinated. But without a single Democratic co-sponsor, its prospects in the legislature are slim. In fact, things just started moving in the opposite direction. Last week, the Human Resources Administration - the social services agency for the five boroughs - announced that workers who fail to comply with a vaccine mandate are ineligible not only for unemployment benefits, but food stamps and cash assistance as well:
“Applicants or recipients of Cash Assistance and SNAP benefits who quit or are terminated from a job due to failure or refusal to comply with a COVID-19 vaccine and/or testing mandates may be ineligible for benefits or subject to a sanction on their benefits case. This includes individuals who stopped going to work in advance of the mandate effective date.
Applicants/recipients will be given an opportunity to demonstrate good cause before being denied or sanctioned. Good cause may be granted after review of a case for medical reasons or an inability to access the vaccine. Clients who are terminated or quit based on refusal to get vaccinated or comply with employer testing mandates will not be granted good cause.”
As usual, both parties want the state to be generous with their own constituencies and use the threat of destitution to whip everyone else into shape. Conservatives have long fought to impose work requirements and means testing on benefits for the poor, while progressives justly rebuke such measures as needlessly parsimonious. But now that the unvaccinated form a right-wing identity group, the GOP is eager to subsidize their lifestyle, while Democrats want them back at work under whatever terms the market is offering. The principle that everyone is entitled to a minimum level of subsistence, though claimed by many in theory, is defended by virtually no one in practice.
However, a few Democrats in New York are willing to stand up for that principle - to some degree, anyway. Shortly after HRA promulgated its policy of denying benefits to workers who were fired for refusing the vaccine, I reached out to a number of elected officials who exercise some authority over this area of public policy to get their reaction. First up was Linda Rosenthal, chairwoman of the Committee on Social Services in the State Assembly, who came out strongly against the agency’s decision:
"I am 110% pro-vaccine. I am vaccinated and boosted, wear my mask and proudly display my vaccine card when requested. I believe it is government’s responsibility to encourage and ensure that as many people as possible get vaccinated against COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
With that being said, I cannot support a policy that would withhold food and other benefits from hungry and vulnerable New Yorkers whose very subsistence is reliant on government assistance. While the government has a significant stake in the health and welfare of its people and in how its resources are used, this policy is coercive and paternalistic.”
According to Lauren Schuster, Rosenthal’s Chief-of-Staff, their office was unaware that HRA had adopted this policy until I contacted them to ask about it. Schuster added that they would be reaching out to the agency in order to learn more about its decision, the legal basis for it, and the size and profile of the population now at risk of losing benefits. But they weren’t the only ones who hadn’t heard of this development. The other elected officials I spoke with said it was news to them too, raising questions about the degree of coordination and information-sharing between city and state government with regard to COVID-19 policy.
In addition to Rosenthal, I emailed the offices of every other member of the State Assembly’s Committee on Social Services last Friday to get their take. As of this morning, only one has responded: State Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas, of Jackson Heights, Queens, who concurred with her committee’s chairwoman:
“Assemblymember González-Rojas continues to insist that everyone should be vaccinated who is not unable to be due to legitimate medical reasons.
She does not support the denying of SNAP to workers who were terminated for refusing to comply with the mandate. Unemployment is already difficult but food assistance shouldn’t be denied as a result of non-compliance with a vaccine mandate.”
Finally, I contacted Brad Lander, who exercises oversight responsibility over city agencies like HRA as the New York City Comptroller. He too expressed opposition to the agency’s policy, stating: “No one should be denied food stamps if they are hungry and out of money, even if the reason they need assistance is that they made a bad decision to not get vaccinated."
I also asked these officials what they thought about New York’s policy of denying unemployment benefits to workers who were fired for refusing the vaccine. Only González-Rojas gave a clear answer, saying that in her view, “efforts to reward non-compliance with public health guidance will not help in managing the COVID-19 epidemic.” Rosenthal’s statement did not touch on this subject, even though the questions I gave her specifically asked about it. When I first got in touch with Lander, I only asked about the HRA decision. Later, I sent along a follow-up question about unemployment benefits, but never heard back.
It’s a shame that more of them weren’t willing to speak to this issue, since it raises challenging philosophical questions that public servants should grapple with. What level of coercion is it acceptable for the state to undertake in pursuit of public health? They all agreed that the threat of hunger is a step too far, but what about the threat of homelessness? Are unemployment benefits a “reward” for good citizenship, or are they the means of delivering a more fundamental right to subsistence? What role does the reputation of the unvaccinated as incorrigible white reactionaries play in shaping the answers that progressives give to these questions? And how many realize that the truth is much more nuanced?
Two Long Island lawmakers have resisted publicly disclosing whether or not they’ve been vaccinated. One is Alexis Weik, the Republican state senator who introduced legislation to protect unemployment benefits for unvaccinated workers. The other is Taylor Darling, a Democratic state assemblywoman. In September 2021, both declined to comment when Newsday asked each member of Long Island’s state legislative delegation about their vaccination status. Though Weik has never gone on the record, Darling did address the matter last April, when she said that she hadn’t yet gotten the vaccine because she was pregnant, nor would she while she was breastfeeding.
As a culture war conservative with a dubious grasp of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, Weik embodies a number of anti-vaxx stereotypes. As a black woman and a progressive, Darling challenges them. Born in Brooklyn, Darling spent much of her childhood in Europe due to her father’s military service. After returning to the US, she excelled as a student and became a nationally ranked chess prodigy. She matriculated at Spelman College at 16 and entered a doctoral program in clinical psychology at 19. She had a successful career as a psychologist until she was recruited by the Nassau Democratic Party to run for office in 2018.
In the State Assembly, Darling has positioned herself as an advocate for racial justice. After the murder of George Floyd and the heightened scrutiny of police practices that followed, she advanced legislation declaring racism to be “a public health crisis.” She’s voted to legalize marijuana, resisted calls to roll back the state’s controversial bail reform law, and even supports reparations for slavery. She couldn’t be further from the caricature of a backwater jug-hooter or small-business tyrant who thinks the vaccine passport is a calling card for the New World Order.
In June 2021, Darling appeared on a local podcast to discuss the issue of vaccine hesitancy in the black community. She began by explaining why she thought focusing public attention on any one individual’s vaccination status is counterproductive:
“I think that when it comes to our health, it’s such a private matter. It also became a private-public matter - a matter of public safety. But it’s still a private matter. I’ve had people ask me if I was vaccinated or not, and I’m not used to being asked these questions about my health. A lot of people are not…We don’t want to be in a space where it’s like, some people are gold and some people are red. So for me, what I’m pushing is for everyone to do their research. Do their research, do what you feel comfortable with.”
She then mentioned that many of her constituents have found messaging from public health authorities to be confusing. In particular, she said that when the vaccine first debuted, people were under the impression that it was a “one-shot deal, you’ll be safe forever, this is it,” then grew concerned after it seemed as though routine boosters would be required. She added that continued emphasis on the risk of infection even after vaccination creates the impression that the vaccine is ineffective. “People are like, ‘Wait a minute, so I can get this and still get sick? Or I have to get this and still wear a mask?’”
Finally, Darling reflected on the suspicion with which black Americans sometimes view the government, and emphasized that this is a product not only of its past failures and atrocities, but of its failures during the COVID-19 pandemic itself:
“I think that with communities of color especially, we have serious trust issues. Especially when it was presented like, ‘We’re coming to you guys first.’ We’re like, ‘Woah, nothing good ever comes to us first.’
Forgive me for my transparency…but I’m telling you, if someone said, ‘Hey, Lamborghinis for everybody,’ I wouldn’t be running out to get one. I’d be like, ‘What’s wrong with them?’ Testing sites didn’t come to us. But the vaccination came to us first and foremost.”
The press has reported on the subject of vaccine hesitancy among black Americans at some length, corroborating Darling’s observations. Data from the state government tells a similar story. While a large majority of unvaccinated New Yorkers are white, black New Yorkers are the only other racial group for whom a significant level of hesitancy persists. In New York City alone, over half a million black residents remain unvaccinated. While healthcare disparities have contributed to this problem, after a year of widespread vaccine availability, skepticism on the merits is surely playing a larger role now than ever before.
The level of subsistence that unvaccinated New Yorkers are entitled to is a fraught question, one about to attract even more controversy. Tomorrow, City Hall is set to fire 4,000 municipal employees who have failed to present proof of vaccination. Already ineligible for unemployment insurance, HRA’s recent decision means that thousands of New Yorkers are about to find themselves out of work with no access to public benefits. The material implications for them and their families are obvious. So are the political implications for their representatives.
The city’s outer boroughs have swung hard to the right over the past two election cycles. While Democratic state legislators managed to cling to Joe Biden’s coattails in 2020, Republicans flipped two city council seats in Brooklyn and Queens in last year’s municipal elections. A third nearly took out Justin Brannan, then among the leading contenders to be Speaker of the City Council. In all three races, the issue of vaccine mandates played a major role in rallying right-wing voters to the polls. Immiserating the noncompliant will only raise the issue’s salience in an already challenging midterm environment for Democrats this November.
But more fundamentally, the government shouldn’t punish everyday New Yorkers for its own failures of public health. The COVID-19 vaccines are a medical triumph that have virtually eliminated the risk of death and hospitalization among the vaccinated population. The fact that the state remains unable to promote greater uptake of such a remarkable achievement - especially among vulnerable communities - is its own fault, as is the fact that every facet of the pandemic response has become a front in the culture war. Instead of trying to paper over these failures with coercive measures to punish the ignorant poor, New York should try actually fulfilling its obligations to its residents, which include the provision of social services to those in need.