2 leave Iowa labor agency after hostile workplace complaints
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — An investigation that found a hostile environment at Iowa’s labor department prompted the state to remove two administrators, including the longtime chief regulator for workplace deaths and injuries, records show.
The case has also produced a whistleblower complaint alleging that Labor Commissioner Michael Mauro and his deputy run the office “like a high school clique,” where friends receive favoritism and others are ridiculed and verbally threatened. So far, they have kept their jobs.
State agencies have tried to keep the months-long investigation and upheaval inside the department confidential. But The Associated Press obtained records that paint an unflattering picture of the department that is supposed to protect workers from harm.
The case is a test for Mauro, 70, who has long survived as one of the few high-ranking Democrats in Iowa’s Republican-dominated state government. A former Iowa secretary of state, Mauro was confirmed by the Senate last year for a second six-year appointment that runs until April 2023 and pays $112,000 annually.
Facing pressure from the executive branch, Mauro fired Iowa Occupational Health and Safety Administration director Jens Nissen and accepted the resignation of OSHA supervisor Deborah Babb on Oct. 12.
Both were longtime state workers. Nissen, 55, investigated serious workplace injuries and deaths and routinely wrote reports that cited employers for safety violations. Babb, 60, supervised about a dozen workplace safety and health regulators.
The action came after the Department of Administrative Services investigated allegations that Babb verbally threatened and intimidated subordinates while Nissen was aware of complaints and failed to effectively intervene.
Earlier this month, Nissen filed a complaint that defended Babb and alleged that it was Mauro who failed to take the workers’ concerns seriously. In a “summary of events” unsealed by the Public Employment Relations Board in response to an AP request, Nissen alleged that he was fired after speaking out about the department’s work environment.
Reached by phone, Mauro said Nissen’s complaint would be investigated by an outside agency but that he couldn’t discuss any details since it is a “personnel matter.” He said he has named veteran Iowa OSHA administrator Luther Don Peddy to lead the office on an interim basis.
The case dates to July, when Nissen said he received verbal complaints from two Babb subordinates alleging that she had routinely threatened and intimidated them. He said he believed the conduct they described violated Iowa’s violence-free workplace policy and that he had witnessed similar behavior in the past.
Nissen said he reported the complaints to Mauro days later and added his own observations, including that she allegedly favored some employees by giving them a more permissive use of their state vehicles. He said Mauro told him he was aware of Babb’s tendencies, that he had spoken with Babb and everything would be fine.
But at least one employee complained to the Department of Administrative Services, and that agency opened its own investigation. Mauro expressed displeasure with Nissen after learning of the probe in August and falsely accused him of disclosing information from management meetings to subordinates, Nissen alleged.
Nissen wrote that he further angered Mauro and deputy commissioner Pam Conner during a September meeting when he raised his hand after Babb asked if anyone believed the department had a hostile environment. Nissen said he was given the option to resign in October and he refused, adding that no reason was given for his termination.
“The work environment at the Division of Labor is not what any reasonable person would expect in a professional setting,” Nissen wrote. “The Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner operate the department like a high school clique. If you are not ‘in’ you are in dire straits.”
He said that Mauro, Conner and Babb regularly talk abusively about subordinates, calling them dumb and ridiculing them for “trivial idiosyncrasies.” Conner called two minority employees “stupid” and used a curse word to refer to a third, Nissen alleges.
Messages left for Conner weren’t returned. A phone number for Babb rang unanswered.
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