Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend is implementing key recommendations from the U.S. Department of Labor to resolve concerns about the previous agency director’s actions. Townsend’s actions provide a refreshing contrast to Teresa Wahlert’s management of Iowa Workforce Development, which sparked recurring controversy and not one, not two, but three lawsuits.
Jason Clayworth reported for the Des Moines Register yesterday,
An administrative shake-up at the Iowa Workforce Development means that a key management position overseeing unemployment insurance appeals will have more protection against political agendas.
The decision to restructure the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Bureau manager position follows months of controversy at the agency where former director Teresa Wahlert was accused of bullying state employees. She was also accused of pressuring administrative law judges to favor businesses in unemployment appeals decisions.
The recommendation from newly confirmed director Beth Townsend follows advice from the U.S. Department of Labor, which called for the position to be a licensed attorney.
The reorganization means that unemployment appeals management position will be considered a merit rather than an at-will position. That distinction is significant because it means that the person in that position has far more job protections, widely viewed as being better insulated from political initiatives, which are issues that dogged Wahlert and her administration.
Click through for more details on Townsend’s latest decisions, including an e-mail she sent to Iowa Workforce Development employees on Monday morning.
In a letter to Townsend last month, a U.S. Department of Labor official called for several other steps to “strengthen Iowa’s compliance with Federal law” and keep administrative law judges “free from actual or perceived intimidation.” Speaking by telephone today, Ed Wallace of Iowa Workforce Development confirmed that Townsend “will be following the recommendations in the letter.”
Asked whether the agency’s Chief Administrative Law Judge position had been filled on a merit staffing basis, Wallace said not yet, but “Director Townsend is committed to doing that in the short term.” Former Chief Administrative Law Judge Joseph Walsh filed suit last year, alleging that then-Director Wahlert “interfere[d] with the administrative judicial process in order to favor employers,” attempted “to illegally strip [Walsh] of his merit protection,” and eventually retaliated by removing him in “a political reorganization disguised as a budget layoff.” That lawsuit is pending in Polk County District Court.
Although Governor Terry Branstad has never acknowledged the many problems with Wahlert’s leadership of the agency, he deserves some credit for choosing a capable person to clean up the mess. The Iowa Senate unanimously confirmed Townsend last month, recognizing her qualifications and early steps to put Iowa Workforce Development back on track.