Iowans fired for refusing vaccine now collecting jobless benefits

By: - April 4, 2022 10:00 am

Iowans forced out of work for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine are now beginning to collect unemployment benefits due to a new state law. (Photo by Getty Images)

Iowans forced out of work for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine are now beginning to collect unemployment benefits due to a new law approved in October.

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a bill that guarantees Iowans unemployment benefits if they’re fired or forced to resign for refusing a COVID-19 vaccine. Reynolds signed the bill Oct. 29, 2021, a day after the Iowa Legislature passed it during a one-day special session.

Under the new law, even those Iowans who walk away from their jobs rather than be fired for refusing the vaccine can collect unemployment benefits, assuming they are otherwise eligible.

The new law also provides that Iowa employers must waive vaccine requirements for workers who submit a “statement” of some kind saying vaccines either conflict with their faith or “would be injurious” to either their health or the health of someone in their household.

Application of the law, however, isn’t always consistent. Some Iowans have been denied benefits with a judge noting that their employment ended shortly before the new law took effect. Others have been awarded benefits despite being fired weeks before the new law’s approval.

For example, on Oct. 22, 2021, Kodi Stone was fired from her job as a human resources specialist for Lifespace Communities, a chain of senior living facilities, for violating the company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Stone had allegedly told her supervisor on Sept. 30 that she would not be getting the COIVD-19 vaccine and had explained she did not understand the research behind the vaccine and was not comfortable with evidence of its effectiveness.

She reportedly told her employer it was her understanding that some doctors were advising the public to refrain from getting the vaccine; that she was not in a high-risk category for those who become infected; and she practiced other mitigation measures while being screened for the virus daily.

Administrative Law Judge Daniel Zeno recently denied Stone’s request for unemployment benefits, noting in his ruling that she had been fired a week before the new law — Chapter 96.5A of the Code of Iowa — was approved.

Lifespace’s vaccine mandate, Zeno found, “was a reasonable work rule. The employer has presented credible evidence that Ms. Stone refused to receive the COVID-19 vaccination after having been warned that non-compliance would result in discipline.”

But Sarah Burroughs, who was fired from her job four weeks before Stone, was awarded benefits, with the judge in her case citing the new law.

Burroughs worked for Grandpad Inc., a provider of communication devices aimed at seniors. She was fired Sept. 28 for refusing to comply with her employer’s mandatory vaccination policy.

Unlike Stone, Burroughs submitted a request for an exemption based on conflicts with her religious beliefs. However, her exemption request was denied by the company and the judge who later reviewed her claim for unemployment benefits, James Timberland, said the exemption request was filled with “sundry boilerplate legal arguments for why she should not be compelled to be vaccinated against COVID-19.”

But Timberland, citing the new law that was approved on Oct. 29, awarded Burroughs benefits.

Medical exemptions require only a ‘statement’

On the same day Stone lost her job, Sydney Even was fired from her job at Clinton’s Mercy Medical Center where she worked as a full-time registered nurse.

Even was pregnant at the time and had decided to wait and get the vaccine after she gave birth. She completed the hospital’s medical-exemption form, but her ob-gyn refused to sign it. She then went to her primary care doctor, who also refused to sign it. Left with an unsigned medical-exemption request, Even was subsequently fired.

Zeno presided over the hearing on Even’s request for unemployment benefits and noted that Mercy Medical Center had fired her seven days before Oct. 29, when, he said, the new law took effect. Therefore, he ruled, the law guaranteeing her unemployment benefits was “of no effect in this matter.”

Still, Even was awarded benefits, with Zeno finding that she had “tried to comply with the employer’s policy” and had submitted a medical-exemption request – albeit one that her doctors wouldn’t sign.

Recently, the Iowa House approved House File 2355, which shortens the maximum amount of unemployment Iowans can collect to 16 weeks, down from 26 weeks under the current law. The bill also  requires unemployed workers to accept offers of lower-paying jobs and to do so earlier in their job search.

The Senate’s version of the bill adds a one-week waiting period before Iowans can begin receiving unemployment benefits.

More unemployment decisions

Administrative law judges have rendered decisions in more than 9,000 contested cases for unemployment benefits this year, according to state records.

Among the more unusual recent cases are these:

Jacqueline Currie was fired last summer from the Dewitt Food Bank where she worked as food server. According to state records, Currie was working at the deli counter one day when she belched so loudly that her manager heard it three aisles away. When the manager rushed to check on the situation, Currie acknowledged what had transpired and apologized.

The day after the belch, Currie was seen licking a serving spoon immediately after she’d used it to serve food to a customer, according to state records. The company alleged Currie had previously been warned for inappropriate actions and poor manners, and had also been warned for not washing her hands or changing her gloves after wiping her mouth while working in front of customers. An administrative law judge recently ruled Currie was ineligible for unemployment benefits and ordered that she repay $196 already collected.

Arionie Hildreth worked at Greenberg Jewelers for two days last September before she quit. According to Hildreth’s testimony at a recent unemployment hearing, she was hired as a full-time office manager and sales associate. On her first day of work, she alleged, the manager and assistant manager had a conversation with her regarding their close relationship and their use of cocaine and marijuana.

According to the judge’s decision in Hildreth’s unemployment case, the assistant manager allegedly told Hildreth about his upcoming birthday and how he was “going to have a threesome with a nurse and that required special bedding due to the bodily fluids.” The next day, the manager allegedly held a team meeting in which the staff was informed of the need to racially profile older black men when they came into the store.

After her shift that day, Hildreth sent the manager a text, indicating she was quitting. At Hildreth’s unemployment hearing, the company did not refute Hildreth’s allegations and agreed she most likely did not know how to properly report her concerns with management before quitting. An administrative law judge awarded Hildreth unemployment benefits, ruling that her employer had given her good cause to quit.

 

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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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