Chet Culver challenges Kim Reynolds' COVID-19 workplace rules

James C. Larew is an attorney in Iowa City who served as general counsel and chief of staff for former Governor Chet Culver. -promoted by Laura Belin

Enclosed below is the full text of a letter former Governor Chet Culver sent Governor Kim Reynolds challenging the newly announced policies restricting workers from seeking unemployment compensation if they decline to return to a job, believing workplace conditions are unsafe.

Chet Culver

April 30, 2020
Governor Kimberly K. Reynolds
Iowa Capitol
Des Moines, Iowa 50309

Dear Governor Reynolds:

While privileged to have previously served as an Iowa governor, I write to you as a private citizen, concerned about your new policy decisions adversely impacting Iowa workers that you appear to have taken in the face of the twin, growing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and a deep economic recession.

COVID-19’s dangers to human health are real, not a hoax; precariously balanced against this backdrop are steep reductions in state revenues that will challenge the effective delivery of basic governmental services when they are most badly needed.

Iowa’s well-earned reputation for smart pragmatism should be allowed to prevail over aggressive ideological mandates that put Iowans in an impossible fix: risking serious illness or even death at work, or risking financial ruination at home. Such a stark choice is not necessary here, but belied by your recent policy changes.

Of particular-but not exclusive-concern are your Administration’s responses to President Trump’s Order, under the Defense Production Act, that meatpacking plants in Iowa remain in operation despite widespread coronavirus outbreaks in them.

In some reported instances, up to 90% of the workers at those sites tested positively for COVID-19.

Local governmental officials are already over-burdened, dealing with the adverse community-wide health impacts of those outbreaks. Notwithstanding those facts, you have just announced unprecedented policy changes that, if imposed, and, if lawful, will threaten the health and livelihoods of those workers and those within those workers’ communities with whom they come in contact: that if they refuse to report to what they believe to be unsafe working conditions, they will not be eligible for unemployment compensation benefits.

Iowa’s meatpacking workers are not the only ones who will be adversely affected by this newly unbalanced approach to workplace safety issues in the COVID-19 era.

Implemented in the manner that your Administration has described, the appearance is created that the state’s most powerful business owners have exerted undue influence in your new policy. Even worse, the impression is created that life-and-death matters related to changes in unemployment benefit rules have been intended to bolster the state’s budget, rather than to protect the economic viability of our workers and their families.

In announcing your decision to “open up” Iowa’s economy you praised Iowa’s tradition of choice- Iowans, you said, should be allowed to choose when to attend church or to open their businesses.

Iowa’s workers deserve options of choice, too. Any such ill-conceived scheme that deprives them of choice and forces those hard-working, yet vulnerable, employees to report to unsafe workplace environments, while the positive incidences of COVID-19 infection are on the rise, is not merely penny-wise and pound foolish–it is just plain wrong.

The public policy decisions made in the heat of this moment will affect Iowans’ quality of life for generations to come. It will also affect their sentiments towards their state government.

I urge you, therefore, in the strongest possible terms, to re-consider and realign, with a goal of increased workplace justice, this balance between employers’ rights to re-open their businesses and employees’ rights to work in safe working environments.

An Iowa-smart, progressive approach to re-opening Iowa’s economy, one that honors the safety and the economic well-being of all Iowans, is the best way to go. Our citizens deserve no less.

Yours truly,

Chet Culver

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