Nurse aide fired for refusing vaccine and testing is denied jobless benefits

By: - November 17, 2021 3:41 pm

A man wears a ‘I Do Not Comply’ pin at a protest against masks, vaccines, and vaccine passports outside the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on March 13, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

A nurse aide who was fired for refusing to be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 is not entitled to collect unemployment benefits in Iowa, a state judge has ruled.

The ruling comes in the wake of newly passed legislation intended to shield Iowa workers from being fired for refusing to be vaccinated against the virus. Although the decision on unemployment was made Tuesday, the worker was fired in July, long before the new law took effect.

State records show that Kathy L. Kennedy was fired from Mason City’s Good Shepherd Geriatric Center in July. She had worked at the center for 15 years as a certified nurse aide.

According to the state records, Good Shepherd did not require its workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 but did require that unvaccinated workers be tested occasionally before reporting for work. Kennedy was aware of the policy and reportedly had been tested twice over the course of 18 months.

On July 12, she was fired after allegedly refusing to be tested again, although she remained unvaccinated.

Administrative Law Judge Darrin Hamilton on Tuesday denied Kennedy’s request for unemployment benefits, pointing out that “this matter is a company rule. It is also a federal mandate upon the employer that, should the employer violate by not testing their non-vaccinated employees, significant financial penalties could be imposed on the employer. Furthermore, the rule is an attempt to stop employees who test positive for COVID-19 from working and thereby exposing co-workers and the clients to COVID-19.”

Hamilton’s ruling makes no reference to the new law, House File 902, dealing with unvaccinated workers. One element of the new law is intended to protect unvaccinated workers from being fired by allowing them to seek medical and religious exemptions from any vaccine mandate imposed by their employer.

The second element of the law states that an individual who is discharged from employment for refusing to receive a COVID-19 vaccination “shall not be disqualified for (unemployment) benefits on account of such discharge.”

The legislation was approved last month during a special session of the Iowa Legislature. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has said “no Iowan should be forced to lose their job or livelihood over the COVID-19 vaccine,” signed the bill into law. The new law makes no reference to COVID-19 testing.

Physical therapy assistant fired for mask refusal

In an unrelated unemployment case that’s tied to COVID-19 mitigation, an Iowa worker named Dorrine Gardipee was denied benefits Wednesday after being fired from Trinity Regional Medical Center where she had worked since 2011 as a full-time, in-home physical therapy assistant.

The job required Gardipee to travel to patients’ homes and assist them with their prescribed physical therapy. She typically spent up to an hour in each client’s home before traveling to the home of another client, according to state records.

Trinity has a universal mask mandate for its employees that was imposed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In late May, Gardipee’s supervisor was told by some of Gardipee’s patients that she was not wearing a mask during her in-home appointments. When questioned, Gardipee indicated she disagreed with the mask mandate and would wear a mask only if a patient asked her to do so.

She was fired in June for being unwilling to comply with the mask mandate.

Administrative Law Judge Jason Dunn denied Gardipee’s request for unemployment benefits on Wednesday, stating that her “refusal to voluntarily wear a mask during each of her in-home visits is not reasonable” and “places her patients at risk.”

Dunn found that the mask requirement “was not optional and it was rooted in credible medical evidence that wearing face masks reduced the spread of COVID-19.”

Dunn added that Gardipee’s job “required her to enter patients’ homes and engage in close personal contact with them as part of her job duties. The fact that (Gardipee) had no issue wearing a mask when the state mandated their use is telling and supports the finding that her decision to discontinue wearing masks were for reasons that were not founded in good faith or good cause.”

(Facebook photo posted by the office of Gov. Kim Reynolds.)

Gardipee also commented about mask-wearing on social media. In August, Gardipee responded to a Facebook photo that Reynolds’ office posted of the governor hugging two children at the Iowa State Fair, with no one wearing masks. Gardipee commented: “Look at that beautiful smile … NO MASKS!!”

Gardipee declined to comment on her unemployment case, saying she intends to appeal the judge’s decision.

Allegations of drugs, patient assault lead to firings

Other Iowans recently fired for alleged workplace misconduct include:

— Kari Howe, who began working for REM Community Services in 2019, and was most recently employed there as a full-time, direct support professional.

Earlier this year, REM received information that alleged Howe was using drugs at work with a client. An investigation was conducted and the agency concluded that in late April, Howe drove a client to a bank so the client could take money from his account and use it to purchase drugs from Howe and her husband. Howe’s husband then completed the transaction in her presence.

Howe was fired on June 16. She subsequently filed for unemployment benefits and collected $1,480 in state benefits as well as $600 in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation.

Administrative Law Judge Duane Golden recently ruled that Howe must repay both sets of benefits, finding that Howe displayed a “willful or wanton disregard” of REM’s interests when she and her husband “sold drugs to a client who was under the employer’s care.”

— Holly Bulver, who worked for Broadlawns Medical Center as a nurse until her firing on June 27 of this year.

On June 27, a female patient who had severe mental health issues was acting out and causing a disturbance to such an extent that she had to be put into restraints.

Bulver and several co-workers were placing the woman into the restraints with Bulver physically placing her body on top of the patient’s chest – a move that can put patients at risk. Once restrained, the patient continued to yell vulgarities and spit on  Bulver, who allegedly responded by slapping the patient across the face.

A supervisor ordered Bulver to leave the room, which she did, but she returned soon after and continued to argue with the patient. Bulver denied slapping the patient but was fired by the hospital after an investigation that included interviews with multiple witnesses.

Administrative Law Judge Blair Bennett recently denied Bulver’s unemployment-benefits claim, ruling that Bulver’s conduct amounted to assault and that she was a nurse whose “job in the mental health ward is to care for people who may act out during episodes.”

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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.