Iowa worker fired over Biden-USSR comparison is denied jobless benefits

By: - March 31, 2022 5:15 pm

An Iowa man who was fired for comparing life under the Biden administration to living in the USSR has lost his bid for jobless benefits. (Photo by Getty Images)

An Iowa man who says he lost his job for comparing life under the Biden administration to living in the Soviet Union is not entitled to jobless benefits, a judge has ruled.

State records indicate Lee Hainey worked as a machinist for the Carver Pump Company from 2007 through September of last year when he was fired.

A few days before he was terminated, Hainey and his colleagues at Carver received a companywide email from the chief operating officer that included an update on the COVID-19 pandemic and the company’s response to it.

Hainey then sent out a companywide response to the message, writing, “Welcome to the USSR, comrades!”

A supervisor confronted Hainey, asking him what he was thinking by sending the email and stating that it came across as a “big middle finger” to the chief operating officer.  “Yep,” Hainey allegedly replied, according to state records. “Glad my message was received.”

At a subsequent meeting with his superiors, Hainey expressed regret that company officials felt the email was disrespectful, but he did not express regret for having sent the email. Hainey was fired and the company then challenged his claim for unemployment benefits.

Recently, the matter went before Administrative Law Judge Darrin T. Hamilton, who ruled against Hainey and denied him benefits.

Hainey, Hamilton ruled, “was pleased with the middle-finger message to the COO,” and only later acknowledged that sending it was a mistake. The judge found that Hainey’s assertion that he did not intend to disrespect the company officials and was instead expressing his displeasure with the Biden administration was not credible – but that even if that was Hainey’s intent, he still would have been violating company rules by causing a disruption in the workplace.

More coronavirus-related unemployment decisions

Other recent unemployment decisions related to the pandemic include:

Randy Boose, who resigned last September from Tyson Fresh Meats, where he worked as a social-distancing monitor. At the time, Tyson employees were required to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but Boose objected due to concerns he had with the vaccine’s safety. Without discussing the matter with company officials, and without requesting a waiver from the vaccine policy, Boose quit and then applied for unemployment benefits. At the time he quit, he was not necessarily facing termination, a judge ruled in denying Boose benefits.

Kelly Still, who was fired last August from Knapp Properties where he had worked for the past 21 years, most recently as a maintenance technician. Still worked exclusively for one homeowner’s association that was a customer of Knapp Properties.

At some point, the association’s board president asked Still if he had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Still said he hadn’t, and the board president told him he may be required to do so. Still objected, arguing a vaccine requirement might be illegal. Later, after the board decided everyone working in the building should be vaccinated, Still allegedly told the board president he was vaccinated, but told residents of the building he was not, according to state records. He then refused to provide the board with proof of his vaccination.

Knapp Properties fired Still for failing to comply with the association’s rules.  Administrative Law Judge Daniel Zeno awarded Still unemployment benefits, noting that the association’s board president didn’t testify at the hearing as to the policies that were violated. Zeno noted in his decision that it wasn’t a condemnation of Knapp’s right to “take reasonable steps to protect its staff and customers from the ongoing, global COVID-19 pandemic,” and should not be seen as “an endorsement of Mr. Still not being vaccinated.”

Amber O’Donnell, who resigned last October from Medical Oncology Hematology where she worked as a full-time chemotherapy pharmacy technician. O’Donnell quit in lieu of being fired for her refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Citing the state law that took effect last October, which says Iowans discharged from employment for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine cannot be disqualified from collecting unemployment, an administrative law judge recently awarded O’Donnell benefits.

Tamara Gibney, who resigned last June from Marengo Memorial Hospital where she worked as a registered nurse. Gibney resigned in lieu of being terminated for refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

In December 2020, the hospital’s CEO had sent an email to all employees alerting everyone that the vaccine “will be required of all team members” as a condition of their employment.

Gibney was initially granted a medical exemption because she was breastfeeding a newborn infant, but in June of last year she transitioned her child to a bottle and asked her employer whether she vaccination was still required. When she was told that it was, Gibney resigned in lieu of being fired.

Citing the new state law on benefits for workers forced out of jobs by COVID-19 vaccine requirements, an administrative law judge recently awarded Gibney benefits.

Donna Whaley, whose hours were reduced last fall at Wesley Life, where she works as Meals on Wheels driver and a home health care aide. Whaley refused to comply with her employer’s vaccine mandate and did not provide documentation to justify her refusal under medical or religious grounds.

In late October, a few days before Whaley was to be fired, Gov. Kim Reynolds eliminated the requirement for Iowans to provide medical documentation to their employer when refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. By that time, Wesley Life had already begun filling the positions of people it expected to fire due to vaccine refusals.

Although Whaley was not fired, her hours were reduced – which was an arrangement she agreed to. Noting that Whaley had wanted her hours reduced, a judge recently denied her request for unemployment benefits.

Kathy Langreck, who was fired last October from Palmer Lutheran Health Center, where she worked as a full-time environmental services technician. Palmer’s policy last fall was that all employees were required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 1, 2021, unless religious or medical exemptions applied. Langreck told her employer she did not intend to be vaccinated and also that she did not believe she qualified for an exemption.

Her refusal, she said, was based on data she had seen and the fact that she knew people who suffered side effects from the vaccine. She was fired on Nov. 9. Citing the new state law that says Iowans who are forced out of work for refusing the vaccine can’t be declared ineligible for unemployment, a judge recently awarded Langreck benefits.

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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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