Iowans win (and lose) jobless benefits due to their employers’ pandemic response

Iowa judges are ruling on unemployment claims related to the pandemic. (Photo by Getty Images)

A fast-food worker who resigned after his boss allegedly tried to keep the staff in the dark about a COVID-19 outbreak has successfully appealed the state’s decision to deny him unemployment benefits.

State records indicate Terrance R. Hill quit his job as a full-time cook at a Hardee’s restaurant in late May. At that time, the pandemic had been spreading in Iowa for at least two and a half months. The restaurant allegedly refused to provide face masks for Hill, despite the fact that he had to routinely work side-by-side with other employees.

On May 30, Hill allegedly overheard a manager talking about two employees who were no longer working because they had tested positive for COVID-19. Hill asked the manager if he intended to inform other employees of the outbreak and was told no because that would prompt the older employees — who face significantly greater health risks from COVID-19 — to stop reporting for work.

After realizing he had recently worked two shifts next to one of the infected employees, Hill quit, citing the risks that COVID-19 posed to himself and his family.

Iowa Workforce Development denied Hill state unemployment benefits, ruling that he had voluntarily left his job without good cause. Rather than appeal that decision to an administrative law judge, Hill instead applied for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, which provides benefits to some individuals deemed ineligible for state unemployment benefits. However, IWD also denied Hill’s application for PUA benefits, which triggered an appeal that went to Administrative Law Judge Beth Scheetz.

Ruling that Hill quit as a direct result of COVID-19, Scheetz found that Hill was qualified to receive PUA benefits “because his employer was exposing him to the COVID-19 virus. It did not provide protective equipment, have employees stand apart while they worked, or notify employees when they had been in close contact with an employee who tested positive for the virus.”

Other recent unemployment-benefit cases involving the pandemic include:

  • Ann Wooldridge was awarded unemployment benefits after resigning from the Animal Rescue League of Iowa where she worked as a technician. Wooldridge had become ill in April, and was advised to quarantine, but the ARL allegedly informed her she would no longer have a job if she didn’t come to work and attend daily meetings with 10 to 20 other employees, none of whom were required to wear masks or socially distance. Wooldridge resigned and later applied for unemployment benefits. Administrative Law Judge Adrienne C. Williamson recently awarded Wooldridge benefits, finding that for at least the first four months of the pandemic, the ARL did not take any precautions to protect employees from COVID-19. The ARL did not provide personal protective equipment or require employees to wear masks, use hand sanitizer or practice social distancing, Williamson found. The ARL also failed to increase its cleaning and sanitizing procedures in the workplace, and in March, after some of the employees traveled to Florida for spring break, the ARL did not require them to quarantine before returning to work, Williamson found.
  • Brittney Rohlfs was awarded federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits after quitting her job as general manager of the Sioux Harbor hotel. An administrative law judge found that Rohlfs’ employer created an unsafe workplace by failing to require social distancing and failing to provide sanitizing cleaning products, face masks, face shields, hand sanitizer or Plexiglass barriers for the front desk.
  • Tamara Fields-Doty was denied unemployment benefits after she quit her job in mid-April as a salesperson for Russell Cellular. In March, shortly after the store reopened during the initial stages of the pandemic, Russell Cellular was not providing workers with protective equipment such as masks, hand sanitizer, gloves and disinfectant spray. On March 11 and April 3, the company sent workers an email informing them they were free to purchase those items themselves once they became available. When Fields-Doty told her boss she was concerned about returning to work with no protective measures in place, he consulted with a district manager who reported that Fields-Doty had three options: return to work, resign or be fired. Fields-Doty quit and subsequently applied for unemployment. Earlier this month, Administrative Law Judge Stephanie Adkisson upheld IWD’s October decision to deny benefits, noting that Fields-Doty had quit just four weeks into the pandemic. “Most employers did not have adequate safeguards in place at the moment the pandemic began,” Adkisson wrote in her ruling. “As more guidance was issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most employers responded by adopting safety measures. Clearly, this employer was on that path … There is nothing in the record to indicate (Fields-Doty) could not provide her own protective masks, sanitizers, or cleaning products.”
  • Emmanuel Longoria was awarded unemployment benefits after quitting his job as an electrician with The Industrial Company Inc., or TIC. Longoria was part of a TIC crew based in Louisiana that traveled each day to and from a job site in a 54-passenger bus. The bus ride took 50 minutes each way and was generally filled to capacity, with two passengers per seat sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. TIC allegedly took no action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic aside from blocking off selected bus seats while still requiring workers to sit shoulder-to-shoulder, two to a seat. Allegedly, TIC also failed to impose social distancing requirements at the jobsite or provide face masks, and workers were left to eat their lunch while seated together on the ground. Longoria had already lost several family members to COVID-19, his wife had only one lung, and his elderly mother lived with the couple. A worksite foreman was allegedly dismissive of Longoria’s concerns, saying the virus was “no worse than the flu” and that concerns about it had been blown out of proportion. Longoria quit on June 2. In September, IWD denied Longoria benefits, saying he had quit without good cause. Administrative Law Judge James Timberland reversed that decision on appeal, ruling that TIC had “created unsafe, intolerable and detrimental working conditions by failing to take reasonable and necessary safety measures to protect (Longoria) and other workers from being exposed to and contracting COVID-19.”