If your employer starts mandating COVID-19 vaccination and you're fired because you refuse to receive the vaccine, chances are you'd still be eligible for unemployment benefits.

A workers' rights attorney in Hackensack says a ruling out of a New Jersey appeals court in 2014, which received news coverage at the time, claims that denial of unemployment benefits would violate an individual's right to freedom of expression.

"It's lawful for the employer to terminate employment ... but that will not, under current law, disqualify someone from receiving unemployment benefits," said Adam Kleinfeldt, a partner at Deutsch Atkins & Kleinfeldt.

In the case, a woman who was working as a nurse in Hackettstown refused to abide by the hospital's flu vaccine mandate, but said she'd wear a mask. The hospital permitted religious and medical exemptions, but she claimed neither. The woman was terminated and, based on her decision to refuse the vaccine, was initially denied unemployment benefits.

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"It was the fact that an employee has the right to express themselves and to refuse to receive the vaccine for their own personal health convictions, and the state could not favor a religious exemption over that first-amendment right," Kleinfeldt said.

According to the New Jersey Department of Health, employers can require workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in order to return to the workplace, unless a worker has a disability or religious reason, or because their doctor has advised them not to get the vaccine while pregnant or breastfeeding.

If an employee uses any of those reasons to decline vaccination, the state says, their employer must provide a "reasonable accommodation from their mandatory vaccine policy," unless doing so would impose a significant burden on operations.

By Sept. 7, all workers in certain state and private health care facilities and "high-risk congregate settings" in New Jersey will be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or be subject to testing one or two times per week.

Kleinfeldt advises workers not to resign if they simply choose to go against an employer's vaccination mandate. Workers can help themselves, he added, by offering to wear a mask and/or submit to regular coronavirus testing.

"If you resign without good cause, you could be deemed ineligible for unemployment," he said.

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