Jobless Iowans who contracted COVID-19 continue to be denied unemployment benefits

By: - June 29, 2021 2:52 pm

An Iowa nursing home worker who was fired after refusing to let a visitor enter the building due to COVID-19 restrictions has been awarded jobless benefits for keeping residents of the home safe. (Photo by Getty Images)

Iowans forced out of work after being sickened by COVID-19 continue to be denied unemployment benefits by the state, while those who voluntarily quit their jobs due to the risk of contracting the virus are collecting benefits.

Under Iowa law, workers can often collect state unemployment benefits after quitting a job due to intolerable or unsafe working conditions. But they often are deemed ineligible for benefits if illness or other factors rendered them unable to work.

The result is that unemployed Iowans left jobless due to a justifiable fear of contracting COVID-19 on the job may find it easier to collect benefits than colleagues who were actually sickened by the virus and then forced off work.

Here’s a look at recent decisions on pandemic-related unemployment claims filed by Iowans. In each case, the factual findings are those of the administrative law judge who ruled on the eligibility issue:

Mateo Bumri, who worked full-time for Tyson Foods as a production-line worker until April of last year when he was diagnosed with COVID-19. He was sick with COVID-19 for more than six months, was hospitalized, spent 10 days in intensive care and had to learn how to walk again through physical therapy. His wife and infant child also were hospitalized with COVID-19. While off work, Bumri received short-term disability pay for about 12 weeks, but otherwise was not compensated by Tyson. Administrative Law Judge Jennifer Beckman ruled Bumri was ineligible for state unemployment benefits, writing that Bumri could not work because he had contracted COVID-19 and Tyson had “agreed” to give him time off for that reason. As a result, Beckman said, Bumri was considered to be on a leave of absence while sick, and thus was not available for work or eligible for benefits, according to Iowa law.

Duane Poage, who worked for Tyson Foods from August 2019 until July of last year when he was discharged for poor attendance. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 on April 26 of last year, and was required to quarantine for 10 days after testing positive. Upon returning to work, he continued to suffer from COVID-19 symptoms such as shortness of breath, fatigue and vomiting. He filed a claim for state unemployment insurance benefits for his time off work, but that claim was denied. He then filed a claim for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits, which was denied by Administrative Law Judge Emily Carr. In her decision, Carr wrote that to be eligible, an individual must be unemployed and the unemployment must be caused by a major disaster. “In this case, (Poage’s) unemployment was caused by his poor attendance, which he blames on his COVID-19 symptoms,” Carr wrote. “However, he was not restricted from attending work, and was not seeking a medical diagnosis. He was not told to stop going to work.”

Susan Petersen, a hotel housekeeper who worked for the Carrollton Inn, quit her job last August due to working conditions. She alleged she and her co-workers were not provided with COVID-19 personal protective equipment, such as gloves and masks, and were made to clean heavily soiled rooms that had not been cleaned for extended periods. When she raised her concerns with the housekeeping supervisor, she was told “that’s just the way it is.” Administrative Law Judge Andrew B. Duffelmeyer ruled Petersen’s “working conditions were so unsafe, intolerable, or detrimental as to justify resignation, particularly since she raised these concerns with her supervisor, and they were not addressed.”

Treasure Brown, who worked as a universal care attendant at a senior-living care facility run by Immanuel Inc., before being fired in January. Because she worked with elderly patients who were particularly at risk of complications resulting from COVID-19, she and other employees were required to wear masks and other forms of protective equipment when working with clients. During contact tracing tied to COVID-19 infections, Brown’s bosses asked her whether she was wearing protective equipment at all times when delivering care to patients, and she indicated she was. The company then reviewed video of Brown and other employees and found that Brown was not wearing her protective equipment for many of the hours she spent directly interacting with patients. She was denied unemployment benefits, with an administrative law judge finding that she had already been overpaid $1,848 in such benefits.

More unemployment cases

Here are some other administrative law judge decisions in cases unrelated to the pandemic.

Sara Scholten, who worked as a program service supervisor for REM-Iowa Community Services, which provides care and services to people with intellectual and behavioral disabilities. She was fired in January, allegedly after the Iowa Department of Human Services confirmed allegations of inappropriate actions involving a handicapped client of REM-Iowa. A co-worker had claimed that as she approached an REM-Iowa house where three or four disabled clients lived, she saw Scholten backing a client against the wall with her hand in his face yelling, “There’s the f—ing door! You can get the f—  out!” Scholten denied the conduct. Administrative Law Judge Blair Bennett denied Scholten unemployment benefits, finding that “her inability to control her anger when dealing with a difficult client led to the inappropriate actions.”

Landon Blackburn, who worked as a recovery coach for Prairie Ridge Integrated Behavior until January when he was fired for off-duty conduct. Blackburn had allegedly become intoxicated and then fell asleep in his parked vehicle. A police officer who was summoned to the scene woke Blackburn and helped him contact his wife, who then drove him home. The agency learned of the matter because the town’s police chief also serves on the agency’s board of directors. Noting that the incident was not made public at the time, and that other employees of the agency post to social media photos of themselves drinking, Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Johnson awarded Blackburn unemployment benefits.

Valerie Jensen, who worked as a customer-experience associate for Consumer Safety Technology from 2018 until January of this year when she was fired. Jensen had allegedly become involved in a public, online feud with another individual through Facebook. In an exchange of messages, Jensen allegedly wrote, “Shut up, c—, I hope you get raped in life too,” and, “You stupid idiot … how about you go outside and maybe if you are lucky, you die from Covid,” and “Die in a fire, n—-,” as well as comments of a more sexual nature. The entire exchange was deleted within 15 minutes, but was reported by Facebook users to Consumer Safety Technology, which was listed on Jensen’s Facebook page as her employer. Ultimately, the company fielded a dozen complaints from the public regarding the statements. Administrative Law Judge Stephanie Callahan denied Jensen’s request for benefits, writing that Jensen’s employer “has a substantial interest in maintaining a positive image in the public, as the public consists of potential future employees and customers … (Jensen) made derogatory, threatening, and discriminatory statements, which were viewed by other employees and members of the public.”

Danielle Van Horn, who worked as a supervisor and registered nurse for SBH-Davenport, which operates a psychiatric facility in Bettendorf known as Eagle View Behavioral Health. In December 2020 and January 2021, just prior to her resignation, Van Horn had been asked to maintain a ratio of one nurse for every 10 to 12 patients — a ratio that she felt was unsafe. At the time of her hire, she had been told that the employer aimed to maintain a ratio of one nurse for every eight or nine patients. Van Horn raised her concerns with management by writing to her supervisor and to the director of nursing and, eventually, to CEO Ross Teemant. No action was taken to address Van Horn’s concerns. Van Horn, who later said at an unemployment-benefits hearing that she feared she would lose her license by engaging in unsafe work practices and by following directives to work outside of the authorized scope of her nursing license, resigned. Van Horn was denied benefits, with Administrative Law Judge Alexis Rowe noting that Iowa law does not specify a minimum patient-nurse ratio.

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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.

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