Appeals to return to state employment fail for ex-state workers on Iowa's no-rehire list

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IOWA CITY, Iowa — Holly Rider wanted to return to work at Glenwood Resource Center, a state-run facility for people with disabilities in southwest Iowa, when she saw openings this year.

The 35-year-old was moving back to her hometown of Red Oak, Iowa, after having her first child. Her mother works at nearby Glenwood, and Rider had years of experience working with children who have behavioral and psychiatric problems.

"I wanted to work with the developmentally disabled," she said, adding that the $15 hourly pay and insurance benefits also appealed. "I had a lot to offer."

But Iowa's executive branch wouldn't consider Rider because of something that happened 14 years ago. Rider was hired at Glenwood in 2000 and fired within weeks, accused of failing to say on her application that she had been convicted of writing bad checks. She explained the charge had been reduced to a misdemeanor that she didn't have to disclose, but was dismissed anyway.

Rider was stunned to learn that she is among hundreds of ex-workers considered by the state as ineligible for re-employment.

"You don't fall off the list. You stay on it for life," said Rider, who works as a teacher's aide for $13 per hour, without health insurance. "They are missing out on a lot of people with great potential because of that."

The Associated Press disclosed in March the state's longstanding practice of quietly barring for life workers who are fired or resign in lieu of termination. Outraged union leaders said the practice amounts to illegal blacklisting, Democrats called for rules to be changed and lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the practice.

But months later, those efforts have gone nowhere. The Legislature adjourned without making changes. A judge dismissed the lawsuit in October, saying workers have to challenge their disqualification through the executive branch, not the courts.

That avenue hasn't been favorable either. Administrative law judges and the Employment Appeal Board have rejected appeal after appeal from former workers trying to get re-employed, records obtained by The Associated Press show. Not one challenge has been successful this year. In previous years, state officials and judges reversed bans entirely or loosened them to allow applicants to only be barred from their former agency.

Meanwhile, the number of disqualified workers has surpassed 900, with 38 added since May.

Those affected include Donovan Nickel, a 10-year officer at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women in Mitchellville who resigned; former Iowa Veterans Home employee Elva Sue Bainter, whose former supervisor wants to rehire her; and Rider, whose appeal was dismissed after she failed to call into a hearing. Rider mistakenly believed the judge was going to call her, but was told she missed her chance and would have to start the appeal process over by applying for another job. She gave up.

Nickel, 42, was praised as a "great asset" and leader in his 2013 performance review. But an investigation later found that he had committed rounds violations. Nickel said that rather than spending time and money challenging a possible termination, he agreed to resign, believing the state would quickly rehire him. He later learned that resigning placed him on the no-hire list.

Administrative Law Judge Heather Palmer ruled that while Nickel believed his resignation wouldn't affect his employment prospects, the state was within its authority in refusing to consider him.

Gov. Terry Branstad's administration has defended the practice, saying it ensures that below-standard workers are never rehired. A worker terminated after being accused of viewing pornography on a state computer in 2004 was among those recently barred from applying.

Employment Appeal Board members warned workers last month to challenge their firings when they happen rather than trying to get off no-hire status after the event, saying they cannot judge the fairness of a termination that happened years ago. "We are not here to be a remedy for wrongful discharge," they wrote.

Bainter was fired after showing up 52 minutes late in May 2013. She forgot she had swapped the shift months earlier with another worker. An unemployment appeals judge awarded her benefits, saying she was not guilty of misconduct. But Palmer upheld the state's refusal to consider Bainter for openings.

She now works for $4.55 less per hour at another nursing home that gives her fewer benefits. Bainter vowed to continue her quest to become eligible for state employment, and is pursuing a second appeal.

"I have never done anything where I should be on a list saying that I should never be hired for a state job," she said. "And the Veterans Home wants to rehire me. Let's get this straightened out."

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