Iowans who quit over unsafe conditions may still receive unemployment

Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend acknowledged on April 30 that Iowans who refuse to go back to their jobs because of unsafe working conditions will not automatically be excluded from receiving unemployment payments.

However, she warned that “it takes more than a mere assertion by the employee” to qualify for benefits under those circumstances.

“WE NEED EMPLOYEES TO RETURN TO WORK WHEN THERE’S AN OPPORTUNITY”

Several categories of businesses that have been shut for more than a month will be allowed to reopen in 77 Iowa counties, effective May 1, under Governor Kim Reynolds’ latest proclamation related to novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

During the governor’s April 24 news conference, a reporter asked Reynolds about the prospect of some employees choosing not to come back to work. The governor asserted that state rules and the recent federal law spelling out unemployment benefits for workers affected by the pandemic say that if an employee decides not to return to a job, that would be considered a voluntary quit, meaning “they would not be eligible for the unemployment money.”

Townsend echoed that message, Katie Akin reported for the Des Moines Register on April 28.

“To get the economy going, in order for us to have a good recovery, we need employees to return to work when there’s an opportunity for them to do that,” Townsend said in a Des Moines Register interview last week.

Failing to return to work out of fear of catching the virus would be considered a voluntary resignation, which disqualifies workers from receiving unemployment benefits. Workers who do not return can collect benefits only under certain circumstances, such as being sick due to the virus or living with an infected family member, IWD officials said this week.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has promised to give meatpacking companies immunity from lawsuits by employees who come down with COVID-19 after being exposed at work. That’s Republican governance for you: compel workers to risk their personal safety, but protect businesses if those workers get sick or die.

But I digress.

Reynolds and Townsend did not accurately convey what state law provides when an employee leaves a job due to unsafe working conditions.

“MISREPRESENTING WORKERS’ LEGAL PROTECTIONS”

Nate Willems, an employment attorney and former Iowa legislator, told Bleeding Heartland in an April 29 email that the comments from Reynolds and Townsend “misstate the law.”

The law states if a person leaves a job due to an unsafe working environment they may collect unemployment benefits. If a person leaves a job due to intolerable or detrimental working conditions they may collect unemployment benefits. Obviously, the facts of each situation will be different.

However, it is not true to simply say that workers who decline to return to work out of fear of unsafe working conditions caused by COVID will not get unemployment. It is completely inappropriate for the Governor or her department director to seek to intimidate workers into not applying for unemployment benefits or to intimidate the judges who here the individual unemployment claims.

Willems explained that Iowa Administrative Code spells out the reasons someone can quit a job without giving up eligibility for unemployment benefits as well as reasons that will disqualify the person who quit from receiving unemployment.

Iowa Policy Project executive director Mike Owen slammed the governor’s public comments in a written statement on April 30.

Rather than taking the high road to protect all Iowans put in jeopardy by the coronavirus pandemic that she herself advises Iowans to guard against, Governor Kim Reynolds is misrepresenting workers’ legal protections during the health emergency she declared.

A clear reading of the Iowa Administrative Code governing eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits establishes that the following are among ‘reasons for a claimant leaving employment with good cause attributable to the employer.’[1]

  • A change in the contract of hire. … This would include any change that would jeopardize the worker’s safety, health or morals.
  • The claimant left due to unsafe working conditions.
  • The claimant left due to intolerable or detrimental working conditions.
  • Iowans do not need to be lawyers to understand those rules. The rules clearly protect workers who want to go back to work, but will find themselves in a new, dangerous situation in the workplace — our new world with the deadly spread of COVID-19.

    Instead, the Governor, in comments during televised news conferences that have brought fresh national attention to Iowa’s poor treatment of workers, stated that an employee declining an offer to return to work is a ‘voluntary quit’ that makes them ineligible for unemployment benefits. As noted in the conditions above, this is not necessarily true in the case of an employee facing unsafe working conditions. Under Iowa law, Chapter 96.5(1), ‘good cause attributable to the individual’s employer’ negates the disqualification for unemployment benefits for leaving work voluntarily. At the same time, she has repeatedly declined to take steps to enforce safety standards in businesses that she wants to reopen.

    The Governor’s comments have the effect of bullying workers into work arrangements that they could never have expected. Her comments further send an intimidating message to administrative law judges outside the parameters of legal processes that have been established to set laws and the regulations designed to enforce them.

    Workers who feel they are being put in an unsafe situation by the COVID-19 pandemic should seek legal or other expert advice and not cast aside the rights they have under Iowa law just because the Governor goes to a microphone and says otherwise.

    Sarah Trone Garriott of the Des Moines Area Religious Council tweeted that during an April 28 call with representatives of Iowa’s refugee community and organizations that serve them, Townsend “did not say there were legal provisions for workers who felt they were unsafe at work, just that they need to talk to their employer about their concerns.”

    Iowa Workforce Development Deputy Director Ryan West likewise didn’t mention this provision in state law when the question came up during U.S. Representative Cindy Axne’s April 29 telephone town hall. He likened the situation to workers in seasonal businesses who go on unemployment during the winter months, then get called back to work in the springtime. He said the agency has told employers and employees on conference calls and webinars that “if you have a note” from a licensed physician certifying that you should not be working due to COVID-19, employers should honor that.

    West added, “We’ve got plenty of employers who are chomping at the bit to get back open,” and they would need employees to come back to work.

    After West spoke, Axne commented that people have valid concerns about returning to a possibly unsafe job. “We need to make sure that first and foremost we’re addressing the health care issues,” such as relatives at home with underlying conditions or a workplace that doesn’t accommodate social distancing. It’s hard for people to go back to work when not all employers are taking steps to keep employees safe, Axne said. “We’ve got a little bit more work to do on that.”

    Axne’s communications director told Bleeding Heartland on April 30 that they were scheduling a follow-up call with Iowa Workforce Development. He said Axne “sees workplace safety and robust testing capabilities as two of the most vital components for putting Iowa on a path to safely reopening” and would be fighting for both.

    “A FEW VIRUS-RELATED EXCEPTIONS”

    Townsend clarified the legal context during the governor’s April 30 news conference. I pulled the relevant clip:

    Townsend reminded viewers that “if you are recalled to work and choose not to return, you may lose eligibility for unemployment benefits in addition to losing your job.” She then listed “a few virus-related exceptions” to that principle:

  • you are diagnosed with COVID-19 or experiencing symptoms;
  • a member of your household has been diagnosed with COVID-19, or you are caring for a member of your household with COVID-19;
  • you or a member of your household are in a higher-risk category and have received medical advice to self-quarantine to lower the risk of exposure to coronavirus;
  • you lack necessary child care because of the pandemic;
  • you can’t reach your place of employment because of the outbreak;
  • you have recovered from COVID-19, but lasting complications have rendered you “objectively unable to perform the essential functions of your job.”
  • Townsend continued,

    We strongly encourage all Iowans to talk with their employers prior to their return to work to understand the measures they are taking to ensure the safety of their employees and customers.

    We do have a provision in our unemployment code that allows an individual to quit a job if they feel that their workplace is unsafe. However, it takes more than a mere assertion by the employee to establish this to be true.

    If an employer establishes that they have taken the necessary steps, such as following industry standards established by OSHA guidelines, providing extra wash stations, additional sanitation areas, allowing or providing PPE such as masks or gloves, and following appropriate social distancing recommendations, it may be difficult to establish a good-faith basis to quit due to safety concerns.

    As we have heard from the Restaurant Association, industries across Iowa are adding even more cleaning and sanitizing efforts above and beyond what they normally do in order to ensure the safety of their employees.

    Sanitizing surfaces is good practice, but Dr. Rossana Rosa, an infectious disease specialist for UnityPoint Health, tweeted on April 26, “You can do all the deep cleanings you want but #COVID19 is spread through respiratory droplets from PERSON TO PERSON IN PROLONGED CLOSE CONTACT (especially without the appropriate PPE!).

    No matter how well tables and surfaces are cleaned, a server in a restaurant could come into contact with a customer or colleague carrying the virus (possibly without showing symptoms) and get sick.

    Reynolds has repeatedly said Iowans with conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 should stay home as much as possible. State government shouldn’t try to withhold unemployment benefits from Iowans who are following that principle by declining to return to work. This virus can cause severe, long-lasting health problems even in people with no obvious risk factors.

    UPDATE: Former Governor Chet Culver has written to Reynolds, urging her “in the strongest possible terms to reconsider and realign” her approach to this issue, Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press on May 1.

    Culver, a Democrat who served from 2007 to 2011, said the Republican governor’s policies have created an appearance “that the state’s most powerful business owners have exerted undue influence.” He cited her push to keep open meatpacking plants that have been sources of community-wide outbreaks.

    Todd Dorman’s latest column for the Cedar Rapids Gazette listed some of Reynolds’ large campaign donors with ties to meatpacking.

    Since 2017, for example Deb and Jeff Hansen, founders of Iowa Select Farms, Iowa’s largest pork producer, and their son Michael Hansen contributed nearly $350,000 in direct and in-kind contributions to Reynolds’ campaign fund.

    Eldon Roth, founder of the South Dakota meat processing firm formerly known as Beef Products Inc., now Empirical Foods, donated $150,000 to Reynolds since 2015, after donating more than $200,000 to the Branstad-Reynolds ticket.

    Bruce Rastetter, CEO of Summit Ag and who was among a group of investors who reopened the beef packing plant at Tama later acquired by National Beef, has donated nearly $100,000 to Reynolds. Under National Beef management, the plant has become a hot spot.

    Gerald Lynch of Lynch Livestock in Waucoma chipped in $86,000 since 2016. Ankeny businessman Denny Elwell has donated $181,000 and Douglas and Deborah McAninch owners of a large earthmoving company, have donated $135,000 to Reynolds’ campaign.

    Top image: Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend speaks at a news conference on April 30, 2020. Photo by Charlie Niebergall/AP (pool).

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