Iowa judge: Spit and chewing tobacco led to ‘intolerable’ work environment

By: - October 5, 2021 4:47 pm

An Iowa man who quit his job due to the tobacco and saliva his co-workers spat on the floor has been awarded unemployment benefits. (Photo courtesy of Wyoming Department of Public Health)

An Iowa man who quit his job due to the tobacco and saliva his co-workers spat on the floor has been awarded unemployment benefits.

Jeffrey Esaias resigned in late May from Novae Corp., a trailer manufacturing company with locations in Clarinda and Red Oak. Esaias had worked for the company since 2018, most recently on the welding floor.

State records indicate that although a company policy enacted in 2017 barred workers from spitting on the floor, some of the employees – particularly those who chewed tobacco at work — continued the practice.

According to state records, Esaias complained to a supervisor about the situation, saying he would often get his co-workers’ saliva on him when he had to get on the floor, underneath equipment that was being worked on. He also complained about poor ventilation related to welders’ smoke. When nothing changed, he complained again, warning his boss that he was considering quitting over the issue.

On May 29, Esaias told his boss he was resigning, effective in two weeks. The company then challenged Esaias’ claim for unemployment benefits, which led to a hearing on Aug. 31.

Administrative Law Judge Alexis Rowe recently ruled against the company and awarded Esaias unemployment benefits, noting that the company had failed to respond to Esaias’ complaints about the air quality and his co-workers’ saliva.

Both issues “presented significant concerns” for employees’ health and safety, Rowe found. “With the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, the failure to curb the practice of spitting chewing tobacco on the floor presented renewed safety concerns,” Rowe stated, adding that the “saliva on the floor created an intolerable work environment.”

Among the other Iowans whose requests for unemployment benefits recently went before a judge:

Helen Misiker, who was terminated from the Northwest Iowa Hospital Corp., after working for one year as a full-time certified pharmacy technician without having passed the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board exam for licensing. By law, the hospital was not permitted to employ her for more than one year with no license. Misiker took the exam twice while employed by the hospital and did not pass the exam. She was awarded unemployment, with a judge ruling that while the hospital could not legally continue to employ her, “failure to pass an exam is not considered misconduct.”

Nathan Jackson, who began working at the Hilton Garden Inn in Iowa City in 2017.  In December 2019, a an individual reportedly told a Hilton Garden Inn supervisor that an employee of the inn was selling illegal drugs, and also alleged that Jackson was buying and using drugs at work. At around that same time, a customer fell at the inn, which resulted in a review of security-camera video from inside the establishment. During that review, the supervisor saw Jackson and another employee go into an elevator-service closet several times. A security camera was then installed inside the closet, which produced video footage allegedly showing Jackson entering the room, taking a baggie containing white powder from his pocket, pouring the powder onto a flat surface and chopping it into lines, and then using a straw to snort the white powder up his nose. In February 2020, the supervisor called Jackson into an office and allegedly showed him screenshots of the video. Jackson reportedly did not deny using illegal drugs at work, and instead encouraged the supervisor to terminate other workers he claimed were using drugs at work. Jackson was fired at that time, but it wasn’t until March 2021 that he filed for unemployment, leading to a recent hearing and a decision denying his claim.

An unidentified licensed practical nurse, working for an unidentified Iowa company, who resigned in March from her job caring for dependent adults. She resigned after witnessing another employee engage in unspecified conduct that violated the employer’s policy on the physical abuse of residents. She reported the incident to a manager, as required by law, but the manager allegedly asked her to “turn a blind eye” to the matter. She then went to her boss and reported the matter. The next day, however, the same employee was at work and was working directly with the resident who had been victimized. When the nurse who reported the matter returned from a brief vacation days later, she was fired without explanation by her employer. The Iowa Workforce Development judge who heard the case has opted to keep confidential the names of the fired worker, as well as the employer, citing a “conflict” between laws that guarantee public access to unemployment-case information and laws that prohibit the disclosure of information pertaining to acts of abuse. (Acts of abuse are often publicly disclosed in police records, criminal court records and civil court records.)

Emily Lamoureux, who was employed as a nursing assistant at a nursing home run by Care Initiatives from August 2020 until December 2020 when she was fired. Lamoureux’s employer claimed she gave a resident an ice cream bowl to drink water from at a time when glasses and bottled water were readily available. The incident allegedly prompted the resident to complain that he or she was “not a dog” and was paying $6,000 a month to reside in the facility. Lamoureux was also accused of the calling a resident “stupid” during that same shift – a comment that was reportedly heard by both the resident and another worker at the home. Lamoureux denied the allegations. She was awarded benefits, with the judge in the case noting that Care Initiatives provided no evidence or testimony to rebut her denials.

Artema Gray, who in April was fired from her job as city clerk for Silver City. According to state records, the state conducted “a periodic examination” of the city’s finances last fall and an auditor then raised questions about apparent discrepancies between Gray’s timesheets and payroll records, and about charges made to the city’s credit card that did not appear to be work related. In April, the city asked Gray to turn in her laptop and keys, adding that she could either resign or she would be discharged. She chose to resign. She was awarded unemployment benefits, with the judge in the case noting she was effectively fired for issues that occurred prior to October 2020, and which her employer became aware of in February 2021. The misconduct that led to Gray’s discharge “was no longer a current act” when she was fired in April, the judge found.

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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.