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Appellate Division: Employee Terminated for Refusing Flu Vaccination is Entitled to New Jersey Unemployment Benefits

The New Jersey Appellate Division has ruled that an employee is not disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits for refusing to submit to a flu vaccination policy for purely secular reasons.
In the case of June G. Valent v. Board of Review, Department of Labor, the employee, Ms. Valent, was employed as a Registered Nurse with Hackettstown Community Hospital (“the Hospital”) from May 11, 2009 through her termination on January 2, 2011. On September 21, 2010, the Hospital’s corporate entity, Adventist Health Care, Inc., implemented a “Health Care Worker Flu Prevention Plan” that required their employees to have a flu vaccine unless there was a documented medical or religious exemption.

Ms. Valant refused to be vaccinated with the flu shot and did not provide her employer with any medical or religious reason.   Although Ms. Valant offered to wear a mask during flu season as a concession for not having to be vaccinated, the Hospital declined her offer and terminated her employment on the basis that she violated her employer’s flu vaccination policy.  If terminating Ms. Valant was not enough, the Hospital then challenged Ms. Valant’s claim for unemployment benefits by claiming that she committed misconduct (“improper, intentional, connected with one’s work, malicious, and within the individual’s control, and is either a deliberate violation of the employer’s rule or a disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect of an employee.”) in her refusal to permit her employer to inject her with the flu vaccination.  The Appeal Tribunal rejected this argument and found that Ms. Valant’s refusal to follow an employer’s policy that “was not unreasonable” and approved her claim for unemployment benefits.  The Board of Review, however, reversed the Appellate Division and disqualified Ms. Valant on the basis of simple misconduct.  In the decision, the Board of Review found that the hospital’s policy requiring flu vaccinations was not unreasonable, and therefore Ms. Valant should be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits.

Not surprisingly, the Appellate Division reversed the Board of Review’s disqualification of unemployment benefits and and found that the ruling “unconstitutionally violated appellant’s freedom of expression by enforcing the employer’s religion exemption to its flu vaccination.”  The Appellate Division took notice that that the religious-based exemption evidences that the policy is not based exclusively on public health concerns because all an employee need do is have a religious leader sign a form attesting to his or her faith-based reason for refusing the vaccination.  Because the requirements were not based upon public health concerns, the Court found that against an employee’s right to not be vaccinated for purely secular reasons.