Iowa workers who take leave due to virus fears likely to be denied unemployment benefits

A gavel and scales of justice in front of an open briefcase. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere.com)

Iowans are being denied state unemployment benefits after taking leaves of absence due to fear of COVID-19, newly disclosed records show.

However, the records also show that Iowans who quit their jobs due to unsafe working conditions related to the pandemic are more often awarded benefits. In one case involving a Tyson Foods employee, a state judge said “the working conditions at Tyson were unsafe, intolerable and detrimental, and rose to the level where a reasonable person would feel compelled to quit.”

Although many of the records associated with Iowa’s unemployment claims are confidential, the cases that result in appeal hearings before an administrative law judge are, in part, public records.

In recent weeks, dozens of cases tied to the COVID-19 pandemic have been ruled on by those judges, shedding new light on the manner in which some Iowans have been forced out of work, and on the difficulties they face in collecting unemployment.

They show that store clerks, hospital employees, manufacturing-plant workers and others who take an indefinite leave of absence in an effort to minimize their risk to COVID-19 aren’t likely to win state unemployment benefits. To be eligible for those benefits, an individual must demonstrate they are able to, and are available to, work. That’s a tall order for someone who is simply on leave and didn’t quit their job outright due to an unsafe work environment.

As for workers who quit their jobs, those who base their decision not just on their own vulnerability to the virus but on their employer’s proven failure to provide a safe work environment are more likely to win benefits.

Stuart Higgins, a Des Moines attorney who specializes in employment law, says unemployment benefits are more likely to be awarded in cases where companies fail to adhere to guidance from state and federal public  health agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“The problem we have now is that these OSHA regulations are presently lacking and are not concrete in their language,” he said.

One Iowa man, Damian D. White, was fired from his job at a Cedar Rapids company after attempting to organize a demonstration over the company’s alleged failure to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19. He was awarded benefits, with the judge in the case saying White’s “concerns about safety were not unreasonable, given the pandemic.”

“It is illegal for an employer to terminate an employee because the employee raises concerns about workplace safety,” Higgins said. ” If that happens, the employee may have the right to sue the employer for wrongful termination in addition to being eligible for unemployment benefits.”

The thousands of Iowans whose jobs were eliminated by their employer as a result of the pandemic are generally considered eligible for benefits, so their claims typically aren’t challenged and don’t lead to a public hearing.

Many of those who are denied state-funded unemployment benefits have been able to collect federally funded benefits under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, better known as the Cares Act. Called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, it generally provides up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits.

Individuals receiving PUA benefits may have also qualified for a $600 weekly benefit amount under the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program.

Here’s a look at the judges’ findings in 17 recent cases that involve Iowans who were either denied, or awarded, state unemployment benefits after losing work due to the pandemic:

  • Tyre Smooth was awarded benefits after resigning from Securitas Security Services where he worked as a full-time security guard. When the pandemic started, Smooth repeatedly asked his supervisor for protective gear, including masks, disinfectant, gloves, and hand sanitizer. The supervisor did not respond to Smooth’s requests. On April 3, a supervisor who had come to work sick and coughing without wearing a mask, came to Smooth’s small work area and remained there with him for approximately 10 minutes. The next day, Smooth quit, saying his employer had placed him in a dangerous work environment without protective equipment. An administrative law judge awarded Smooth benefits, concluding he quit with good cause attributable to the employer. “The claimant should not have had to ask for masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant,” Administrative Law Judge Beth A. Scheetz ruled. “The supervisor and account manager should have been making certain those items were stocked and being used.”
  • Damian D. White was awarded benefits after being fired from Chep Services of Cedar Rapids where he worked as a full-time pallet repair operator. He was fired after attempting to organize coworkers for a demonstration regarding worker safety. White and others felt the company was not doing enough to protect them from possible exposure to COVID-19, as they worked with pallets from all over the world, including locations with known outbreaks. The company was not doing temperature checks of employees and was allowing sick employees to work. When the company learned of the planned demonstration, it suspended White, then fired him for creating a hostile work environment. White “was not hostile toward coworkers or supervisors, nor was he threatening violence or destruction of property,” Administrative Law Judge Andrew B. Duffelmeyer ruled. White “simply sought to organize a demonstration regarding safety … (His) concerns about safety were not unreasonable, given the pandemic. Benefits are allowed.”’
  • Steven Richardson was denied benefits after quitting his job at Collis Inc., a Clinton manufacturer of kitchen appliance parts. Richardson worked in an area of the plant that kept him in close proximity to his coworkers — so much so that they would physically touch each other while working on an assembly line. Richardson told his supervisor he was uncomfortable working so close to his coworkers due to the pandemic, but no changes were made. A shift manager allegedly responded to Richardson’s concerns about working in that area of the plant by saying, “I don’t care, that is where you are going.” He quit and filed for unemployment, saying he weas fearful of contracting the virus and infecting his two young children. Administrative Law Judge Heather L. Palmer found that Richardson voluntarily quit his job without good cause attributable to his employer and denied him state unemployment benefits. “There was no evidence presented Richardson or his family members are more at risk of contracting COVID-19 than the general public,” Palmer ruled. “There was no evidence presented anyone at Collis had tested positive for COVID-19. I do not find a reasonable person to believe his working conditions were intolerable or detrimental where a reasonable person would feel compelled to quit.”
  • Cody Wilson was awarded benefits after being fired from his job with Doll Distributing, an Iowa beer distributer, where he worked as a full-time warehouse laborer. Wilson had missed several days of work with illness and told his employer that his physician advised him to take time off work due to the pandemic and his compromised immune system. At his unemployment hearing, Wilson testified that while he was at the employer’s work site, there were no masks or sanitizer available for workers and no one was practicing social distancing. After Wilson asked for two weeks off due to the pandemic, he was fired. Administrative Law Judge James F. Elliott awarded Wilson unemployment benefits, saying his employer had not established an act of misconduct that would disqualify Wilson from collecting benefits.
  • Issa Mohamed was awarded benefits after quitting his job at a Tyson Foods plant due to working conditions there. According to state records, while working at Tyson, Mohamed became fearful of contracting COVID-19. He was working in a crowded environment close to other employees. At his unemployment hearing, Mohamed testified he is old, has high cholesterol and has impaired breathing. He testified that his roommate had contracted the virus and become very sick, and he knew many employees at Tyson who contracted COVID-19 and some of them had died. Mohamed reported his fears to Tyson officials on April 4, and told the company he was going to stay home from work the next day. He testified that a plant official told him if he did not come into work that day he would have “no more work.” He said he replied by telling the company official that he was in fear for his life. Administrative Law Judge Heather L. Palmer awarded Mohamed unemployment benefits. “I find Mohamed has established the working conditions at Tyson were unsafe, intolerable and detrimental and rose to the level where a reasonable person would feel compelled to quit and constitutes a good cause reason attributable to Tyson for Mohamed to have quit,” Palmer ruled.
  • Misti Ceriani was denied benefits for the period she wasn’t working at Heritage HR, a Council Bluffs senior-care company that employed her as a full-time life enrichment assistant. She was granted a leave of absence from March 30 through May 31, due to COVID-19 because her husband has severe asthma. She was denied state unemployment benefits due to being unavailable for work during her leave of absence.
  • Christopher D. Anderson was denied benefits after taking a leave of absence from his job at Seaboard Foods in Sioux City where he worked as a full-time animal caretaker. He had requested the leave of absence on April 5 after his child care provider closed due to the pandemic. With three children at home under the age of 11, Anderson stayed home while his wife worked. He took a second leave of absence May 4 when a family member was exposed to COVID-19. But because he was not available for work during his leaves, he was ruled ineligible for benefits.
  • Robert Armstrong was denied benefits after leaving his job at Iowa Beverage Systems where he worked since 2004. He was separated from employment on March 23, after telling his employer that his doctor advised him that due to his underlying health conditions and the COVID-19 pandemic, he should not be working. Noting that Armstrong was not available for work because he was “following his physician’s restrictions and self-isolating” while not looking for a new job, Administrative Law Judge James F. Elliott denied Armstrong benefits.
  • Susan Kofron was denied state unemployment benefits after taking a leave of absence from her job at Fareway Stores, where she worked as a part-time cashier. In April, she began exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 and her doctor recommended she not return to work. She tested negative for COVID-19, but her symptoms continued and her doctor recommended she not work until she was free of a fever for at least 72 hours. Because she was on a leave of absence due to her COVID-19 symptoms and was not considered to be available for work, she was ruled ineligible for state unemployment benefits.
  • Michael Moeller was denied benefits after taking a leave of absence with Dolly’s Taxi in Waterloo, pursuant to a doctor’s recommendation based on Moeller’s underlying health conditions and the pandemic. An administrative law judge concluded that because Moeller had taken a leave of absence, his lack of work was attributed to a period of voluntary unemployment, making him ineligible for benefits.
  • Matthew Garrett was denied benefits after quitting his job at a Target store where he had worked as a part-time cashier since 2017. At the time, he lived with two individuals who sprayed him with disinfectant and told him he needed to find a different place to live because of his increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 while working at the store. Because he had nowhere else to go, he quit his job and moved to his mother’s home in Ohio. “Garrett did not provide any evidence that would lead a reasonable person to believe his working conditions were intolerable or detrimental where a reasonable person would feel compelled to quit,” Administrative Law Judge Heather L. Palmer ruled. “Garrett voluntarily quit his job without good cause attributable to Target.”
  • Rose McClain was denied unemployment benefits after taking a leave of absence from Dubuque’s Finley Hospital where she worked for the past 10 years, most recently as a full-time physical therapy technician. Her last day at work was March 18, around the time the pandemic began to spread in the United States. Because McClain has chronic bronchitis and is 78 years old, she asked for and was granted a leave of absence. Ruling that McClain “was on a leave of absence due to health conditions” and had not “established she is able to, and available for, work,” Administrative Law Judge Christine A. Louis found her ineligible for state unemployment benefits.
  • Marilee Torres was denied benefits after taking a leave of absence from the Sherwin Williams store where she had worked since 2018 as a customer service specialist. Claimant’s last day on the job was March 14, when she told her store manager she was more susceptible to serious complications should she contract COVID-19 due to her age and her compromised immune system. Her doctor provided a note recommending she not return to work until a vaccine for the coronavirus was available. With her leave considered to be “voluntary unemployment,” she was denied state unemployment benefits. Administrative Law Judge Dawn Boucher ruled she must repay $1,260 in state unemployment benefits already paid out, as well as $3,600 in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation benefits.
  • Tasha Bonner was denied benefits after refusing work from Midlands Living Center, a Council Bluffs care facility where she had worked as an on-call certified nursing assistant since 2016. In late March, she stopped taking shifts at the center because she was worried about contracting COVID-19 and infecting her grandparents, whom she cared for. Noting that he “understands” reasons for refusing work in the home, Administrative Law Judge Andrew B. Duffelmeyer ruled that Bonner was not eligible for benefits due to her not being unemployed within the meaning of the law.
  • Arlen R. Nichols was denied benefits after taking a leave of absence from Hy-Vee Inc., where he had worked since 2015 as a meat clerk. In early April, due to his medical issues and the pandemic, Nichols’ doctor restricted him from working through Sept. 1, 2020. Hy-Vee agreed to provide him with a medical leave of absence. With his leave of absence considered a “period of voluntary unemployment,” Nichols was denied state unemployment benefits.
  • Mark Meyer was awarded benefits after being fired from Alpla Inc., an Iowa City company where he had worked since 2017, most recently as a full-time machine operator. On April 13, he had reported for work, was screened and reported cold symptoms and said he was losing his voice. He was instructed to leave work and to see his family doctor about obtaining a release to return to work. His physician then provided a medical excuse that he should be off work until April 19. On April 20, he reported for work and was fired for job abandonment.
  • Paige Tadlock was awarded benefits after missing work at Northwest Iowa Hospital Corp., where she had worked since 2017, most recently as a recreation assistant. Tadlock is a cancer survivor who has been free of cancer for roughly 18 months and she takes medication that suppresses her immune system. She also suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and as a result she has trouble breathing and has a bad cough. Tadlock and her doctor believed she was at high risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic due and her underlying health conditions. He doctor advised her to stay home from work for at least one month, beginning April 1. She relayed her doctor’s recommendation to her immediate supervisor, but the company informed Tadlock that it would fire her for violating the attendance policy if she missed too many days, which it did on April 10. Noting that it was “undisputed that Tadlock called Northwest to report every absence in accordance with the employer’s policy,” Administrative Law Judge awarded Tadlock benefits. “Tadlock is high risk twice over when it comes to the threat posed by COVID-19. Her health issues are beyond her control. They are not a matter of personal responsibility … Tadlock’s absences due to her high-risk status relative to COVID19 constitute ‘reasonable grounds’ for missing work.”
Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.