Iowan who cited religious beliefs in refusing to wear a mask is denied jobless benefits

Unemployed Iowans will lose additional federal jobless benefits in June. (Photo by Getty Images)

An Iowa man who refused to wear a COVID-19 face mask at work because it violated his religious beliefs is not entitled to unemployment benefits, a state judge has ruled.

State records indicate that since 2012, Aaron Vulich worked sporadically for Tri-City Electric of Iowa as a communication technician, installing internet networks and other infrastructure for his employer’s customers.

In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, more and more of the work projects handled by Tri-City required the use of face masks for workers at the job sites. Vulich objected to wearing a mask and so, in an attempt to accommodate Vulich’s personal beliefs, the company moved him from one job site to another, enabling him work without a face mask in areas where he would not have contact with others.

As the pandemic worsened and local mask mandates became the norm, project managers warned Vulich he was at risk of being let go due to his refusal to wear a mask, and his last day of work for the company was Aug. 10, 2020, the day a derecho struck Iowa.

The state initially denied Vulich’s  application for unemployment benefits, which prompted him to file an appeal where he stated, “I refused to wear a mask based on my religious beliefs.”

A hearing was then held before Administrative Law Judge Forrest Guddall, at which Vulich indicated his objection to masks was rooted in a “personal belief,” rather than a specific tenet of his faith or of any particular sectarian doctrine.

Guddall found Vulich was “a good worker for Tri-City, was not facing any disciplinary action, but is unemployed solely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and his refusal to wear any face covering.” But Guddall also noted that Vulich “intentionally and voluntarily refused to wear a face mask or covering,” even though that was a requirement to working at Tri-City job sites.

Vulich, the judge said, “felt compelled to refuse to wear a face mask or covering due to his own personal beliefs. He appears sincere in his belief — it cost him his job. But sincerity alone does not constitute good cause” for quitting a job, and the judge ruled Vulich was ineligible for regular unemployment insurance benefits.

Guddall noted in his ruling that Vulich may still be eligible for federally funded unemployment insurance benefits under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, better known as the CARES Act.

Other Iowans with recent unemployment claims tied to COVID-19 include:

Former Fort Dodge Community School District custodian Oscar Diaz was fired from his job last fall. According to state records, Diaz told his supervisor, Jared West, last September that he was not feeling well and had a fever. West told Diaz to go home in accordance with the school district’s COVID-19 policy.

Diaz allegedly refused to leave work and refused West’s request that he wear a face mask. According to the school district, he then coughed in West’s direction without attempting to cover his mouth and allegedly smirked at West.

West reported Diaz’s actions to his boss, and the district launched an investigation. Five custodians who witnessed the incident allegedly verified West’s version of events. The next day, Diaz notified West that he had just been diagnosed with COVID-19 and would be quarantining for 10 days.

When Diaz returned to work, he was interviewed about West’s complaint and fired. He filed a claim for unemployment benefits, which the district challenged. The dispute recently went before an administrative law judge, Adrienne C. Williamson, who ruled Diaz acted unreasonably when he refused to leave after reporting for work with a fever, then refused to wear a mask.

Diaz, Williamson ruled, “not only refused to wear the mask but also coughed in his supervisor’s direction without attempting to cover his mouth.”

Morgan Bernal was fired last November from her job as an aesthetician — a term typically used to describe a skin-care specialist — at Robinson Medical Aesthetics.

State records indicate that last June, Bernal was sent home to quarantine through July 14 because she had contracted COVID-19. Bernal was later seen shopping at stores during her quarantine period and was issued a warning by her employer. When she returned to work, Bernal was given another warning, this time for treating customers without being masked.

In November, the company received information that Bernal had hosted in her home someone who was positive for COVID-19. The company asked Bernal to quarantine for 14 days. A few days after making that request, Bernal’s employer because aware of social media posts and photos that allegedly showed Bernal at bars, without wearing a mask and drinking straight from liquor bottles that were being shared with others. At that point, Bernal was fired.

An administrative law judge denied her request for unemployment benefits, ruling that Bernal “knew that she needed to follow regulations and knew that she needed to quarantine after contact with a person positive for COVID,” and had put herself and her employer’s clients at risk.

Justin Wendelboe, who last June quit his job as temp worker for Acro Service Corp., due to the working conditions at Iowa Workforce Development, the same agency that handles unemployment claims.

Acro had a contract with IWD to provide temporary workers, and Wendelboe was assigned to an IWD office as a customer service agent and claims assistant. While there, he worked in a densely populated office space with dozens of other workers, some of whom were employed by other temp agencies.

In June 2020, another temp in the office, with whom Wendelboe had close contact, tested positive for COVID-19. At the time, there was no masking or social-distancing requirements in the IWD office. Wendelboe was not informed of the coworker’s diagnosis, which angered him since he lived with at least one individual who was at high risk of complications from COVID-19. He quit after being denied permission to work from home.

Administrative Law Judge Jonathan Gallagher awarded Wendelboe unemployment benefits, citing the “at best, limited safety protocols” in the IWD office, despite the high worker density, the lack of information sharing about a positive COVID-19 worker and the inability of people to work from home.

“The significant loss of life and numerous long-term disabilities caused by the pandemic reveals its risk to all,” the judge noted in his ruling.

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.