Iowa man fired for wearing a ‘DEMOTED’ face mask collects jobless benefits

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

An Iowa man who showed up for work at a pawn shop while wearing a face mask that said “DEMOTED” is entitled to unemployment benefits, a judge has ruled.

Jason McComas had worked for EZ Pawn Iowa for several years when he was demoted in July 2020 as part of a corporate restructuring that involved several people, including himself, being demoted from district manager to store manager.

State records indicate McComas was not happy by the change in his position, and in his final six weeks of employment he engaged in a series of actions that led to his discharge.

His alleged actions included wearing a face mask at the store that had the word “DEMOTED” written across it, sending multiple emails to members of management questioning their authority and decisions, filing formal complaints against management, sending an email to the company president, questioning the company’s response to the derecho on Aug. 10, 2020, and sending up to 10 messages per day to one company official.

After he was fired, EZ Pawn Iowa challenged McComas’ request for unemployment benefits. Administrative Law Judge Jennifer L. Beckman heard testimony in the case and recently ruled in favor of McComas, noting that while the company may have been justified in firing McComas, it had never warned him his job was in jeopardy, which is a critical factor in deciding whether one qualifies for unemployment.

“As a prior district manager and store manager, (McComas) knew or should have known his conduct was not setting a positive example for other employees,” Beckman ruled, describing his response to being demoted as “blatantly unprofessional.”

Beckman found that McComas had repeatedly badgered his managers and ruled that while she didn’t condone his actions, “it cannot be ignored that at no time during this period was (he) warned that he must stop the badgering, wearing the demotion face mask or otherwise discontinue his continuous challenging of management authority.”

Sturgis rally, ‘demeaning’ remarks lead to unemployment claims

Other Iowans whose unemployment cases were recently decided include:

— Jason Hawkins, who worked as a unit manager for the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility until his termination last summer. On May 25, 2020, Hawkins was in a meeting with two other unit managers when he made what a judge later called “a demeaning and patently offensive sexual comment” about a female colleague.

During the same meeting, Hawkins also made a joke about the incineration of Jewish people during the Holocaust. He also displayed a photo of a female with Down Syndrome that included what the judge called “a demeaning, vulgar sexual caption” that referenced the person’s disability.

On Aug. 28, the prison fired Hawkins and he subsequently applied for unemployment benefits, which the prison challenged. At a hearing on the matter, the prison claimed the firing was delayed for three months by the state’s investigation of the May 25 meeting and by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, prison officials were unable to say when the investigation was completed or explain how the pandemic prevented them from telling Hawkins his job was at risk.

Administrative Law Judge James Timberland ruled that Hawkins’ conduct was “reprehensible,” but awarded him benefits, noting that the prison “waited three months from its first knowledge of the offending conduct to advise the claimant that the conduct could or would result in discharge from employment.”

— Geraldine Wurtzel, who had worked for Infastech Decorah since June 1998. In August 2020, Wurtzel attended the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota with her boyfriend. When the motorcycles she and her boyfriend were driving stopped working on their way west, the couple got a ride to the rally with others.

After arriving in Sturgis, the couple didn’t wear masks or any personal protective equipment while at the rally, and they stayed overnight in a small campground outside of the city.

Based on the government’s designation of the rally as a potential “super-spreader event,” Wurtzel’s employer placed her on a 14-day quarantine.  She then filed for jobless benefits for the two weeks she missed work, collecting $962 in state unemployment insurance benefits and $1,200 in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.

Administrative Law Judge Beth Scheetz recently ruled that in order to be eligible for the state benefits, Wurtzel would have had to be available for work during the weeks in question, and that due to her quarantine she was not available and was thus ineligible for the state benefits she collected.

— Sidney King was fired from her job at Tri-State Nursing Enterprises after attending the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. State records indicate King took vacation time to attend the rally, which concerned her employer since King shared an open office with four other employees.

During the rally, Tri-State contacted the Iowa Department of Public Health to inquire about steps it should take upon King’s return to work. IDPH recommended the company have King wear a face mask and shield once she came back. When King returned from her vacation, she found the equipment on her desk but opted not to wear it.

She was then given the choice of either wearing the equipment or serving a suspension of 14 days. King was reportedly upset because other employees in the office were not required to wear the equipment. King was suspended her for insubordination by failing to wear the equipment and was warned that any additional violations could lead to termination.

When King returned to work, she was fired for her having refused to wear the equipment the day she was suspended. Administrative Law Judge Stephanie Adkisson awarded King benefits, noting that King didn’t commit any additional violations before the company fired her.

— Anthony Landis, who had worked for the City of Fayette as a police officer until he resigned last October. Landis had allegedly told city officials he was quitting because he was facing a reprimand, and possibly termination, for violating the police department’s work rules in some unspecified manner.

According to the findings of the judge in the case, Landis resigned after being told he would have to go before the city council to explain his actions. He was denied unemployment benefits.

— James Dunn, who had worked for six years as a truck driver for the transport company Tom Gullickson Inc., until he was fired last summer.

On Aug. 28, 2020, Dunn was driving a company truck and trailer when he was involved in a single-vehicle crash. He had been driving down a fairly straight highway when he lost control of the truck and trailer, which ran into a ditch and then rolled over. A police officer at the scene allegedly stated Dunn’s mobile phone was playing YouTube videos at the time of the crash.

Earlier in the year, Dunn had been disciplined and ticketed for following another vehicle too closely. In 2019, he was disciplined and ticketed for using a cell phone when he was supposed to be using his headset. In 2015, 2018, 2019 and 2020, the employer received phone-call complaints from drivers on the road who were concerned about Dunn’s driving. In 2019, the company downloaded five months of data from Dunn’s truck and counted 40 instances of hard braking and one instance of driving at 87 miles per hour.

Administrative Law Judge Emily Drenkow Carr denied Dunn unemployment benefits, saying his actions had put others at risk. “People can use cell phones to call, text, email, play games, watch videos, surf the internet, use social media, and more,” Carr said in her ruling. “Doing these things while driving is dangerous.”

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.