Federal law mandates Iowans’ firing, while state law provides jobless benefits

By: - May 18, 2022 4:49 pm

A federal law on vaccines had to led to Iowans being fired even while a state law guarantees those workers jobless benefits. (Photo by Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)

Two Iowa health care workers fired for violating a federal law requiring them to be vaccinated against COVID-19 have been awarded jobless benefits due to a state law that ensures such workers can still collect unemployment.

In one case, a judge noted that while the worker could have kept her job by simply claiming a medical or religious exemption, doing so would have forced her to be untruthful.

State records indicate that Jacqueline Eggert worked for Visiting Nurses Association of Johnson County as a certified nurse aide and home care aide, visiting patients in their homes to provide caregiving.  In 2021, she was notified by her employer that federal laws required the agency’s employees to either be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus or have an exemption from vaccination. The only exemptions allowed, according to the federal law at that time, were for medical or religious reasons.

Eggert declined to get a vaccination due to her own personal belief that the vaccine was developed too quickly and without adequate research. On Feb. 11, the deadline for compliance, she turned in her work materials and quit due to the lack of vaccination.

Citing the new Iowa law that prohibits the state from denying unemployment benefits to workers who lost their jobs for refusing the vaccine, Administrative Law Judge Dawn Boucher ruled recently that Eggert was eligible for benefits.

“It is clear that (Eggert) was discharged from employment for refusing to receive a vaccination against COVID-19,” Boucher wrote in her ruling. “It is also clear that both parties in this case were put between ‘a rock and a hard spot.’ The employer was required by federal law to have all employees vaccinated or secured exemptions on file. The law only allowed the employer to use medical or religious exemptions. (Eggert) was uncomfortable completing either exemption request as they did not comport with the reasons for her refusal of the COVID-19 vaccination. She should not be required to be untruthful in completing an exemption request.”

Another Iowa worker, Taylor Vasquez, was recently awarded unemployment benefits under similar circumstances. Vasquez worked for Crothall Healthcare as a full-time nutrition operator from May 2017 until her termination in February of this year.

In January, citing a federal mandate for its workers to be vaccinated, Crothall told employees that they must receive their vaccine or apply for a medical or religious exemption by Feb. 14, or they’d be fired. Vasquez opted to forego the vaccine without applying for an exemption.

Despite the federal law that mandated her dismissal, Vasquez was awarded unemployment benefits due to the state law on job losses caused by vaccine refusals.

More Iowa unemployment decisions

Other Iowans whose unemployment claims were recently decided by an administrative law judge or the state Employment Appeal Board include:

Michael Gass, who worked for the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women as a full-time correctional officer for 25 years until September of last year. He was fired for violating a policy that says prisoner-transportation runs can include a bathroom break only if they are taken at law enforcement centers or correctional facilities.

While transporting two offenders to the University of Iowa Hospitals last August, Gass contacted the shift supervisor and reported an urgent need to make a bathroom stop. The supervisor directed him to the nearest law enforcement center, which was 25 to 30 miles away, but stated that if it was an emergency, he could use the nearest rest area.

A few minutes later, Gass pulled off the road and, while keeping the transport vehicle in sight, relieved himself in a nearby ditch. After returning to the correctional facility, he informed his supervisor of his actions, which led to a formal investigation and his termination. An administrative law judge later denied Gass’ application for unemployment benefits, ruling that he had shown “a willful disregard” for the employer’s standards of behavior.

Gass appealed that decision to the state’s Employment Appeal Board, which recently reversed the judge’s decision, stating that Gass’ only alternative to pulling over would have meant “creating a medical issue for himself and/or producing what may be considered hazardous material on board the employer’s vehicle.”

Gass’ behavior, the board said, was “an isolated incident that didn’t rise to the legal definition of misconduct.”

Julie Menuey, who was employed by Waterloo’s Allen Memorial Hospital as a patient safety companion from September 2020 through February of this year. Menuey was fired for misconduct after a co-worker allegedly caught her in the employee locker room, digging through that same co-worker’s purse. Menuey had allegedly taken some of the co-worker’s prescription medication. Menuey later admitted to stealing the drugs, according to a judge’s findings, and was terminated. She was denied unemployment 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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