Judge: Iowa agency forced out disabled worker after citing messy handwriting

By: - November 17, 2021 11:10 am

The Grimes Building on the Iowa Capitol Complex houses the Iowa Department of Education and other state agencies. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Iowa Department of Education forced out a long-time employee after accusing her of sloppy handwriting and repeatedly suggesting she retire, according to state records.

Faced with a civil rights complaint over the matter, the state allegedly offered the woman her job back, which she refused.

According to the recent findings of a state administrative law judge, Carol Ross began working for the Iowa Department of Education in August 2009, most recently serving as a full-time account technician.

In October 2020, the department hired an individual, unnamed in the available public records, who was to be Ross’ supervisor. Because Ross was working from home due to the pandemic, she didn’t meet her new supervisor until December 2020 when she brought her work computer into the office to be repaired.

When Ross returned to the office the next day to pick up the device, the supervisor was standing in the hall and yelled at Ross that she was not supposed to be at work. Shortly after that, the supervisor told Ross that because she wanted to keep an eye on her, Ross could no longer work from home.

Each time Ross met with the new supervisor, the woman allegedly recommended that Ross retire, which Ross said she couldn’t afford to do.

On Dec. 22, 2020, the new supervisor gave Ross a written warning for messy handwriting. Ross, who has a physical disability that impacts her writing, perceived the warning to be discriminatory in nature and filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission for discrimination based on age and disability.

Ross was subsequently disciplined for other alleged infractions, including sleeping on the job. On April 1 of this year, department officials summoned Ross into an office and allegedly told her she would be fired if she did not resign. Ross agreed to resign.

A month later, on May 5, the DOE and someone from the Iowa Attorney General’s Office allegedly contacted Ross at home and told her she could have her old job back if, in return, she dropped her civil rights complaint against the department.

Ross chose not to drop the complaint because she considered the work environment to be “toxic” and not good for her physical or mental health.

Administrative Law Judge Daniel Zeno recently awarded Ross unemployment benefits, noting in his ruling that no one from the DOE appeared at an Oct. 27 hearing to explain the agency’s actions or offer any evidence of misconduct on the part of Ross.

“Ross’s work environment declined significantly when the new supervisor arrived,” Zeno ruled. “Things were so bad that Ms. Ross filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. Even still, Ms. Ross chose to stick it out and left her job only after the employer forced to her to choose between resigning or being fired.”

Zeno reversed a previous decision in the case and awarded Ross jobless benefits, stating that she had been fired for no disqualifying reasons.

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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.