Care-facility worker who contracted COVID-19 not entitled to jobless benefits, judge says

By: - June 1, 2021 8:00 am

An empty unemployment benefits form. (Photo by Getty Images)

An Iowa woman who contracted COVID-19 while working in a treatment facility where residents ignored face-mask requirements is not entitled to state unemployment benefits, an Iowa judge has ruled.

Since 2015, Erin Phillips had worked as a substance abuse counselor in a residential treatment facility run by Trinity Medical Center. Due to the pandemic, Trinity required all employees and residents to wear masks. Residents who failed to comply could be issued warnings and, in theory, could be discharged from the facility after receiving three such warnings.

Shortly before she quit, Phillips worked with an unmasked resident who stated he or she had COVID-19 symptoms. The resident told Phillips he or she had informed a nurse of the symptoms and had simply been sent back to their room. The resident subsequently tested positive for COVID-19, as did another resident who frequently did not wear a face-mask inside the facility.

Both residents had been warned multiple times, but were never discharged from the facility.

A few days after her meeting with the unmasked, symptomatic resident, Phillips began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and so she resigned effective immediately. Phillips tested positive for the virus a few days later.

Administrative Law Judge Daniel Zeno recently ruled that Peters was not entitled to state unemployment benefits.

“Phillips voluntarily quit her employment due to valid concerns she had about her health and safety,” Zeno ruled. “While Ms. Phillips had good personal reasons for quitting her job, those reasons are not attributable to the employer. Ms. Phillips was not satisfied with the employer’s efforts to make residents wear masks and not accept new residents to reduce exposure to COVID-19. Iowa law limits the actions the employer may take in discharging residents, and specifically regarding residents who have been civilly committed.

“On the whole, Ms. Phillips has not established that the actions the employer took resulted in working conditions that were unsafe, intolerable or detrimental.”

Other Iowans whose unemployment claims recently went before a judge include:

— Helen Peters, who quit her job as a receptionist at Clinton Urgent Care last August. According to the judge who heard Peters’ subsequent claim for unemployment benefits, the doctor in charge of the clinic “discounted the threat posed by COVID-19” and “did not require patients to wear masks while at the clinic and declined to follow some CDC guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19.”

According to the judge, the clinic “did not even require patients who were at the clinic for COVID-19 testing or other services related to COVID-19 to wear masks.”

The doctor in charge of the clinic also rejected Peters’ request that the clinic provide personal protective equipment, so Peters provided her own mask to wear while performing her duties. After Peters quit her job and applied for unemployment benefits, an Iowa Workforce Development deputy determined her resignation was without good cause that could be attributed to her employer’s actions and she was denied benefits.

— Jaime Chinn, who was fired in December 2020 from the Valley Lodge Assisted Living Center run by Care Initiatives in Correctionville. The home had a COVID-19 screening protocol that required employees to truthfully answer questions regarding any symptoms of the virus before entering the building.

On Oct. 22, 2020, Chinn arrived at work and told the nurse performing the screening that she had some sinus pressure from crying the night before, but no symptoms that would suggest a COVID-19 infection. Later that day, she tested positive for the virus.

A supervisor interviewed various staff and residents of the home who reported that Chinn had talked to them about working despite having symptoms. A judge ruled recently that Chinn was entitled to unemployment benefits.

“An employee is entitled to fair warning that the employer will no longer tolerate certain performance and conduct,” Administrative Law Judge Sean Nelson ruled. “Without fair warning, an employee has no reasonable way of knowing that there are changes that need be made in order to preserve the employment.”

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Clark Kauffman
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.