- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 1, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - The longtime president of Iowa’s largest public employees union said he was outraged to learn about the executive branch’s widespread practice of barring some fired workers from ever returning to state employment.

Danny Homan, of Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, accused Gov. Terry Branstad of operating a secret blacklist. While some who commit misconduct shouldn’t be rehired, the practice also bars employees who deserve a second chance or those who might work well in a different position, he said Monday.

“There could be any number of reasons why a person fails. Maybe they have a life-changing incident and they change their life. We’re still going to hold them accountable for something that could have happened 10 years ago? That’s just unfair,” he said.

The Associated Press reported Monday that 1,471 fired workers face lifetime bans from statewide employment, even amid questions about the practice’s legality. The list includes workers fired for cause and during probationary periods when they don’t have job protections.

Homan, who was unaware of the 20-year-old practice until Monday, said he was amazed Branstad’s administration added 250 workers in three years, twice the pace of his predecessor. He did say he knew some employees agreed not to return to specific departments when resigning.

“They pretty much have kept this quiet, even previous governors,” he said.

Democats and union officials said the practice was part of Branstad’s pattern of disrespecting workers, as the Republican governor also faces criticism over the administration’s secret cash settlements with workers who claimed wrongful terminations. At least one who obtained such a settlement, Department of Education employee Deborah Schroeder, also had been on the exclusion list. She challenged her firing and was reinstated with back pay.

“Blacklisting former state employees, secret payoffs for alleged political firings, and refusing to hold anyone accountable is simply unacceptable,” said Progress Iowa executive director Matt Sinovic.

State Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said he would question administration officials about the practice during an oversight hearing Thursday, saying he found it “deeply troubling.”

Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said lawmakers should quickly pass legislation to allow details of employee misconduct to be made public so taxpayers understand why people are on the list. He called Homan’s criticism “unfortunate and unsurprising.”

Private companies are barred from discouraging other companies from hiring ex-workers under Iowa’s longstanding blacklisting law. Two Dubuque nurses recently sued under the little-used law, alleging their placement on a large health care chain’s “do-not-rehire” list ruined their employment chances.

The nurses’ attorney, former Democratic lawmaker Nate Willems, said the law doesn’t cover public employers.

“The fairness of the issue is an entirely different matter,” he said.

The number of banned workers has grown even though administrative law judges have ruled three times since 2009 that the Department of Administrative Services doesn’t have the authority to issue lifetime employment bans against ex-workers. DAS, they said, can only use its discretion to consider rejecting them when they actually apply for new jobs.

DAS spokesman Caleb Hunter said the department tells employees that they’re barred when they apply again, saying he’s confident its practices are legal. Critics say the lack of clear policies opens the door for unfairness.

Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said he raised several questions with the department after learning about the practice Monday. He said lawmakers want to ensure that affected employees get notice and appeal rights and that the bans are applied uniformly.

Among those affected is William Freese, who spent 20 years with Department of Human Services. Freese testified that he was a good employee for 19 years until a 2012 death in the family caused him to be disorganized and fall behind on assignments, which led to his firing last year. He said he didn’t believe his situation should “result in a blanket ban on working in state government,” noting his supervisor told him he could be rehired by another agency.

DAS refused to consider Freese for another job in November, and an administrative law judge upheld the ban.


Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/rjfoley

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