Two lawsuits accuse the state of discriminating against workers

By: - May 4, 2023 3:48 pm

The state of Iowa is facing a pair of lawsuits alleging discrimination and retaliation by top agency leaders. (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The state of Iowa is facing a pair of lawsuits alleging discrimination and retaliation by top agency leaders.

One of the cases alleges discrimination based on disabilities, while the other claims discrimination based on national origin.

The most recent of the two cases, filed in federal court, involves Kemal Delilovic of Polk County. He who was hired by the state in 1997 as a refugee specialist and assigned to work in the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services, which is part of the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services.

In his lawsuit, Delilovic, whose national origin is Bosnian and Herzegovinian, alleges all of the bureau’s specialists are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. The specialists are tasked with assisting refugees through interpretation services, case management, education and employment assistance and other forms of support.

According to the lawsuit, the state also employed workforce advisors and case managers within Iowa Workforce Development to perform similar or identical tasks for non-refugees in Iowa.

The refugee specialists were assigned pay grade 22 by the state, which resulted in lower compensation than the IWD employees who were assigned pay grade 24.

In 2014 and 2015, Delilovic asked the bureau to reclassify the specialist position to pay grade 24 to match the IWD staff, and the state refused.

Around that time, DHHS Personnel and Business Manager Pauline Rutherford frequently asked Delilovic and other employees to stop speaking Bosnian in the office. The lawsuit alleges Rutherford also told Delilovic that he could simply “leave” if he did not like being paid less than the IWD employees. The lawsuit claims supervisors suggested the specialists apply for jobs in mail services, threatened retaliation for complaints and told Delilovic and others to “be happy” they had jobs at all.

Delilovic alleges he filed two separate complaints with the Department of Administrative Services alleging pay discrimination on the basis of national origin and that DAS never investigated the matter.

In May 2022, after Delilovic filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, the state allegedly announced that the majority of the refugee specialists would be reclassified as workforce advisors and given a 5% increase in pay and upgrade to pay grade 24.

However, the lawsuit alleges, the state did not reclassify Delilovic and he remained a refugee specialist at a pay grade 22, as did Anna Udorvich, another specialist who had complained about unequal pay.

The bureau’s other two refugee specialists were reclassified to paygrade 24.

The lawsuit alleges violations of the Iowa Civil Rights Act through discrimination based on national origin. The state has yet to file a response.

Education agency accused of retaliation

The second discrimination lawsuit involves Amy Williamson of Polk County, who worked at the Iowa Department of Education from 2007 through early 2022, at one point serving as the deputy director of learning and results.

At some point, Williamson alleges, a human resources associate began generating reports on which employees used the most sick leave. Williamson, who has multiple chronic health conditions and had recently undergone surgery, was at the top of the list, the lawsuit claims.

The department’s chief of staff and HR director, Shanlyn Seivert, allegedly began rejecting employee requests for sick leave. The agency began tracking the whereabouts of employees on medical leave and had a supervisor shoot videos and photos of a disabled employee in an effort to catch her abusing policies and terminate her employment, the lawsuit alleges.

In response to Williamson’s complaints, the department gradually and systematically removed her from decision-making, the lawsuit claims. “Multiple staff members approached Amy, many crying or visibly distressed, because they were being bullied, harassed, tracked, surveilled, or otherwise treated unprofessionally and/or illegally,” the lawsuit alleges.

In November 2021, after an employee filed a grievance alleging Family Medical Leave Act discrimination, Williamson met with then-department director Ann Lebo to express her concerns, according to the lawsuit. She suggested that Lebo report potential civil rights violations and notify Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Instead, the lawsuit claims, Lebo retaliated against the worker who had filed the grievance and “insulted, demeaned, and attempted to humiliate the supervisor who had ruled in the staff member’s favor in the grievance decision.”

In January 2022, Williamson notified Reynolds’ office of the alleged civil rights violations and acts of retaliation by Lebo and others. Eight days later, according to the lawsuit, Lebo stripped Williamson of nearly all management responsibilities, effective that day. Days later, while Williamson was on medical leave, the department sought applications for Williamson’s position – effectively discharging her from employment.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for violations of the Iowa Civil Rights Act in the form of discrimination and retaliation. The state has yet to file a response to the lawsuit. Lebo has since resigned from her state position.

After leaving the Iowa Department of Education, Williamson applied for and was denied unemployment benefits. She appealed that decision, which led to a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Emily Drenkow Carr. The state declined to participate in the hearing.

Noting that Williamson’s testimony in the case was “unrefuted,” Carr found there was no evidence of “any deficiency” in Williamson’s job performance. Williamson, Carr ruled, had “believed her reduction in duties to be a punishment for reporting her civil rights concerns to the governor’s office. Under the circumstances faced by (Williamson), a reasonable person would feel compelled to resign.”

Given those facts, Carr ruled, Williamson’s resignation was “for a good-cause reason attributable to the employer,” and she was entitled to collect 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.