State contests ruling on workers’ right to be heard on safety issues

By: - May 29, 2023 10:30 am

The state of Iowa is challenging a ruling that it violated prison workers’ rights to be heard on issues of personal safety. (Photo by Getty Images)

The state of Iowa is challenging a ruling that it violated prison workers’ right to be heard on issues of personal safety and assaults on the staff committed by inmates.

In a petition filed last week in Polk County District Court, Attorney General Brenna Bird, representing the state, is arguing that state agencies are under no legal obligation to meet with their employees over workplace safety concerns.

The dispute stems from an event that took place in the fall of 2017, when Neil LeMaster and Todd Eaves, union representatives and correctional officers at Iowa State Penitentiary, attempted to speak to the then-warden, Patti Wachtendorf, about an increase in altercations with inmates and concerns for workers’ safety.

During a labor management meeting in September 2017, LeMaster and Eaves raised employees’ concerns about their workplace conditions. They later alleged Wachtendorf refused to answer their questions.

They also claimed that shortly after the meeting, Wachtendorf refused to meet with LeMaster in his capacity as union president and told him any concerns he had as an individual worker could be raised at the next staff meeting.

In October 2017, LeMaster sent Wachtendorf an email, indicating he and Eaves would like to meet with her “to discuss the health and safety of our staff.”

Wachtendorf sent back an email in which she stated, “I will meet with any staff; I’m very open about that. I will meet with you and Todd as officers/staff, not as union representatives. The new forum for that is the staff communications meeting that I would like to see both of you attend.”

Board: Wachtendorf’s ‘refusal to listen’ violated law

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees then filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board. The board concluded that due to a 2017 change in state law, the state was no longer required to meet with union representatives to discuss health and safety matters. PERB ruled that Wachtendorf’s refusal to meet with LeMaster and Eaves as union representatives was not a violation of law.

AFSCME appealed that decision, and on review, a district court judge ruled in December that Iowa law unambiguously states that public employees have the right to engage in activities not just for purpose of collective bargaining, but also for other forms of “mutual aid or protection.” The judge remanded the case back to the board for further consideration.

Last month, the board sided with union, ruling that “it is clear that the state refused to entertain any communication from LeMaster and Eaves on behalf of other employees (and) the union.”

The board went on to say: “LeMaster’s and Eaves’ attempt to communicate employees’ concerns regarding their health and safety based upon increased inmate assaults is clearly a protected concerted activity. While the state has no obligation to bargain or negotiate with regard to such concerns, it also cannot interfere with or restrain employees’ rights to express concerns and be heard on such matters. The record is clear that the state, by Wachtendorf refusing to listen or entertain questions regarding these matters on behalf of the union and refusing to have a meeting to hear such concerns, interfered or restrained such rights.”

Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird is now seeking judicial review of that decision, arguing in new court filings that “there is no statutory obligation that a public employer meet with an employee upon request.”

AFSCME and the board have yet to file a response to the state’s petition.

Prior to 2017, it wasn’t unusual for representatives of state management and union officials to hold periodic meetings to discuss and resolve workplace concerns. At that time, their collective bargaining agreement required the parties to attempt to resolve issues concerning employee health and safety through such meetings before pursuing litigation or other actions.

However, in February 2017, the Iowa Legislature approved a bill eliminating the requirement that the state attempt to address safety issues in meetings with union officials, at least for the bargaining units that aren’t largely composed of public-safety officers.

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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.