Iowa nurse is fired after a patient’s family calls COVID-19 a ‘hoax’

Iowa's 2nd Congressional District candidates have split on many health issues. (Photo via Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners)

An Iowa nurse was fired from her job after arguing with a patient’s family who said COVID-19 is a “hoax.”

State records indicate that in April, Lisa Dockery was fired from her job as a home-health nurse for Recover Health Services, an agency with offices throughout Iowa. For the previous eight years, Dockery worked with one patient full-time — a nonverbal boy with severe disabilities.

As part her job, Dockery assisted the boy with all activities of daily living. After the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the boy’s parents allegedly told Dockery they believed the virus was a “hoax” and they refused to wear a mask around her or their son.

Dockery told the boy’s parents their child was at risk of death if he contracted the virus because of his respiratory problems, his need to be fed by tube, and the fact that he is not ambulatory.

On April 6, Dockery and the parents became involved in an argument about COVID-19. The boy’s father asked Dockery to leave and, as a result, Recover fired Dockery.

At her unemployment hearing, Dockery testified she had always received positive performance reviews and she had never been disciplined by her employer. She testified that she misses her job and would still be working for the family if the pandemic had not occurred.

In awarding Dockery unemployment benefits, Administrative Law Judge Heather Palmer wrote that she did not find Recover had met its burden of proving Dockery acted with negligence in violation of company policy. “Recover has failed to establish any intentional and substantial disregard of its interest that rises to the level of willful misconduct,” Palmer ruled.

Dockery has been a nurse for 35 years and she has worked in home health care for the past 21 years, according to state records.

Another Iowa worker, Donna Jo Pleima, voluntarily quit her job in May after a conflict due to her boss’ alleged belief that COVID-19 is a hoax.

Pleima had worked as a bookkeeper for Private Housing Company Inc., since 2015. Earlier this year, Pleima’s doctor had given her a note informing Private Housing that Pleima needed to work from home due to medical conditions that put her at high risk of complications related to COVID-19.

Her immediate supervisor, company owner Vince Blom, allowed Pleima to work from home, but allegedly told her, repeatedly, that COVID-19 was a hoax and he did not like employees working from home.

On May 7, Pleima resigned from Private Housing, citing alleged unfavorable treatment by Blom because she was working from home. An administrative law judge ruled that while Blom “made uninformed comments about COVID-19 being a hoax,” Pleima was not working under intolerable conditions. She was denied unemployment benefits.

Other Iowans who quit or were fired from their jobs due to COVID-19 issues include:

  • Mary Gilbert, who in April quit her job with the Mosaic, a company that offers residential living for disabled adults. Gilbert alleged that at the house where she worked, Mosaic was not restricting access to only those employees who had a work-related reason to be there. She also alleged Mosaic had not increased cleaning and sanitizing practices; was not providing personal protective equipment to workers; and was not taking the temperatures of employees entering the house. On April 5, she allegedly complained and asked for permission to wear her own face mask at work. She was reportedly told mitigation efforts were not being implemented at the home because they were not mandatory in Iowa, and that she could not wear a face mask at work because it might upset or frighten the residents. “A reasonable person would have believed (the) working conditions were unsafe, intolerable and detrimental,” ruled Administrative Law Judge Adrienne C. Williamson in awarding Gilbert unemployment benefits. (Update: Mosaic, which did not participate in the hearing or appeal the judge’s ruling, says none of Gilbert’s allegations are true.)
  • Lynae Tesdall, who in April quit her job as a licensed mental health counselor at the Community Health Center in Mason City. During a meeting of the center’s Behavioral Health Division on March 22, Tesdall voiced concerns about the center failing to protect clients and staff from COVID-19. At her recent unemployment hearing, she testified that she believed the concerns she expressed at the meeting were not taken seriously by management, to the extent that one supervisor laughed at her when she raised the issue. Shortly after the March 22 meeting, Tesdall and two of her colleagues at the center  sent a letter to Renae Kruckenberg, CEO of the Community Health Center. In the letter, they identified what they called “grave concerns” about management minimizing, marginalizing and ignoring concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19. Tesdall subsequently quit, citing the COVID-19 issue as well as concerns that the center might be violating the federal patient-privacy laws. At her unemployment hearing, the center did not refute Tesdall’s testimony. She was awarded benefits, with Administrative Law Judge Barbara Tapscott, ruling that her employer had “created an intolerable work environment.”
  • Lozetta Johnson, who in May resigned from her job cleaning hospital rooms. Johnson had worked for the cleaning company Aerotek since 2018 but when the pandemic struck, Aerotek allegedly provided her with only a cloth mask rather than a medical-grade mask for protection. At the time, Johnson was cleaning the hospital rooms of COVID-19 patients, and she resigned due to unsafe working conditions. She was awarded unemployment benefits.
  • Babette Bates, who in May resigned from her job at Dermatology PC, where had worked as a patient services specialist since 2015. Bates complained the clinic was only wiping down the lobby when it was empty, there were no masks available, no Plexiglas shields installed, no social distancing being practiced, and no temperature checks of patients. On May 4, the company notified employees that one of their colleagues, a nurse, had tested positive for COViD-19. Bates was then denied a medical leave of absence and was allegedly told she would either have to work or resign. She quit and was subsequently awarded unemployment benefits.
  • Satrina Weeks, who in April was fired from her job as a caregiver at Martin Luther Homes of Iowa, a retirement home for the elderly. Over a three-week period, Weeks was allegedly given three warnings about failing to wear a face mask while working in the home. After the third warning, a resident of the home reportedly photographed Weeks working without a mask, and she was fired. She was denied unemployment benefits and ordered to repay more than $3,700 in benefits already paid out.
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.