An empty unemployment benefits form. (Photo by Getty Images)
An Iowa nursing home worker who quit her job rather than wear a face mask intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 is not entitled to jobless benefits, a judge has ruled.
According to state records, Stephanie Lindsey, a full-time cook for the Luther Manor Communities nursing home in Dubuque, quit her job in May. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Luther Manor has required its employees to wear personal protective equipment at work since March 2020.
The rules require all employees to wear a face mask covering their mouth and nose, and, at times, employees have also had to wear a face shield or goggles for eye protection. The rules are based on guidance from the Iowa Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since March 2020, Lindsey had been repeatedly reminded to wear her personal protective equipment, and she objected. She did not present the company with any medical evidence that suggested a mask would be detrimental to her health or provide any other reasons for her objections.
On May 6, after becoming upset with the directive to wear a mask, Lindsey handed in her badge to her manager and quit without notice. She was later granted unemployment benefits and collected $4,849 in payments before Luther Manor’s appeal of that decision went before Administrative Law Judge Jennifer Beckman.
After a hearing on the issue, Beckman ruled last week that Lindsey was not entitled to benefits, finding that Lindsey had “quit the employment because she did not want to wear PPE. (She) worked directly with a vulnerable population who was high risk if exposed to COVID-19. The employer was required to have its employees wear PPE, or risk being fined by the governing agency.”
Lindsey will not have to repay the $4,849 in benefits since those payments were made pursuant to a fact-finding hearing in which the employer didn’t participate or challenge the claim. And because the employer didn’t receive proper notice from the state about that hearing, the cost of the benefits will not be charged to the company and will instead be absorbed by the state’s unemployment fund.
In a separate matter, an Iowa woman who walked off the job for fear of contracting COVID-19 inside an assisted living center has successfully appealed a previous decision by the state to deny her unemployment benefits.
Sandra Perrott-Melton, a full-time resident assistant at the Country Meadows Place in Mason City, was working the evening shift on Aug. 22 when a cook at the home, who was not wearing a mask, told her and other employees that he or she had tested positive for COVID-19.
Perrott-Melton, aware that her husband was at a high risk for complications if he were to contract COVID-19, grew concerned and, as she later told an administrative law judge, she “began to panic.” She called her supervisor, and then called her supervisor’s boss, but was unable to reach either of them, and so she left the building two hours into her shift. Before her next scheduled workday, she received an emailed notice from the facility stating that in Country Meadows’ view she had quit her job.
At the hearing on her subsequent claim for unemployment benefits, Perrott-Melton testified that she did not intend to quit and had simply left the building to protect her husband’s health.
Administrative Law Judge Daniel Zeno awarded Perrott-Melton benefits, reversing a fact-finder’s decision denying her unemployment benefits. Zeno noted that Perrott-Melton had simply left the building after an unmasked co-worker had told her that he or she tested positive for COVID-19.
“No evidence establishes that Ms. Perrott-Melton wanted to quit or intended to quit,” Zeno ruled. “Ms. Perrott-Melton left work early on August 22 to protect her husband’s health.”
Last month, two Iowa healthcare workers fired for defying requirements to wear a mask or be tested for COVID-19 were denied unemployment benefits.
Earlier this year, state lawmakers approved legislation intended to shield Iowa workers from being fired for refusing to be vaccinated against the virus.
The new law, which makes no reference to COVID-19 masking or testing mandates, allows unvaccinated workers to seek medical and religious exemptions from any vaccine requirement imposed by their employer. Another 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 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.
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