State agency accused of disability discrimination in firing longtime employee
A fired employee of Iowa Workforce Development is suing the state agency for alleged disability discrimination related to the health risks she faces from COVID-19.
IWD is the state agency dedicated to helping Iowans with disabilities find and maintain employment.
In her lawsuit against the agency, Kirstin Born of Polk County states that she began working for IWD in 2003. In 2015, she was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder, Myasthenia Gravis, which is treated with daily medications and periodic infusions.
In March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, IWD began allowing employees to work remotely from home. At that time, Born began working 55 to 60 hours per week, according to her lawsuit, performing not only her regular duties but also a wide range of tasks related to an unprecedented increase in the unemployment claims that are processed by IWD.
Born received the two-dose Moderna vaccine in March and April 2021, according to her lawsuit, and in May 2021, IWD and other state agencies announced their offices would be reopening and remote work was ending.
However, the lawsuit alleges, there was a COVID-19 outbreak in Born’s office at IWD and most workers in the agency’s Unemployment Services Division were able to continue working remotely well into the fall of 2021.
On June 4, 2021, testing showed Born had not produced any antibodies following her vaccination, leaving her essentially unprotected from the COVID-19 virus. The virus posed a particular risk to Born due to her compromised immune system caused by her medications, her lawsuit states.
On June 7, 2021, according to the lawsuit, Born sent her supervisor a copy of her vaccination card and lab work to document the danger that COVID-19 posed to her and asked that she be allowed to continue working remotely until she could become revaccinated again.
The lawsuit claims the request was denied on June 16 and again after Born submitted records from her neurologist and hematologist.
Iowa Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, called IWD Director Beth Townsend on behalf of Born, asking that Born be allowed to work from home in light of her health issues, according to the lawsuit. The agency subsequently gave Born a four-week extension to become vaccinated and return to the office.
Born alleges her vaccination was delayed while she was in the midst of immunosuppressant infusions and that she continued to work from home and then took advantage of the Family Medical Leave Act and by taking eight weeks of unpaid leave. While on leave, she received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine and learned she still had not produced antibodies to protect her from the virus. She again asked that she be allowed to continue working from home, but IWD denied each of those requests, her lawsuit claims.
On Oct. 12, 2021, Petersen emailed Gov. Kim Reynolds’ chief of staff, expressing concern that the state’s refusal to let Born work remotely appeared to be disability-based discrimination. Petersen never received a reply from the governor’s office, the lawsuit alleges.
After Born sent IWD a formal request for a disability accommodation to work remotely, the agency notified Born she was to report the following day no later than 8 a.m. to her workstation, where plexiglass and an air filter had been prepared for her. The lawsuit does not specify whether Born returned to the office, but says IWD fired her on Dec. 17, 2021.
Her lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court, seeks unspecified damages for disability discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act and for retaliation in response to her requesting accommodations for her disability. IWD has yet to file a response to the allegations.