Iowa safety inspectors say their firings were retaliation
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Two Iowa workplace safety inspectors were fired in what they are calling retaliation for blowing the whistle on a hostile environment inside their agency.
The firings of Jason Garmoe and Travis Stein on Tuesday are the latest turmoil at the Division of Labor, which has been rocked by recent personnel turnover and accusations of cronyism and harassment. The agency accused both men of misconduct that included leaving a state vehicle running for two hours while conducting an inspection — an allegation they call false.
Garmoe and Stein said in interviews with The Associated Press that they were singled out for harsh treatment after providing critical information about agency leaders to state investigators. Both said they feared they would lose their jobs for doing so but were assured that they would be protected.
“I got fired because I told the truth,” Garmoe said. “This is the great state of Iowa. But my god, the culture that still exists there just blows my mind. It’s disgusting.”
Stein said that it’s unfortunate that state OSHA employees, who routinely promise workplace safety whistleblowers that they will be protected, cannot rely on similar guarantees. “Jason and I were both let go purely for retaliatory reasons,” Stein said.
The state ombudsman’s office confirmed Thursday that it has opened an investigation into the labor division. The office is investigating a whistleblower complaint filed by former Iowa OSHA director Jens Nissen, who alleges he was fired after agreeing with subordinates that the work environment was hostile, according to his attorney, Mark Sherinian.
Labor Commissioner Michael Mauro, whose 6-year term runs until 2023, said he couldn’t comment on personnel matters but that his agency was running “very well” amid the changes.
Mauro’s deputy, Pam Conner, announced the departures of Garmoe and Stein in an email that told employees to cut off their building access.
Garmoe, Stein and others met with human resources investigators last summer and detailed what they called a culture of favoritism and retaliation in their office. The inquiry led to the forced retirement of supervisor Deb Babb and Nissen’s firing on Oct. 12.
The investigation was prompted by a complaint alleging two employees favored by Babb routinely made sexual innuendo in the office by playing with a toy banana. The accused said the banana was only used as a stress ball but one of them, OSHA inspector Benjamin Brightman, resigned Jan. 3.
Nissen and others have compared the environment to a “high school clique” in which Mauro, Conner and Babb play favorites and punish others.
Employees say Mauro and Conner were angered by having to force out Babb, who denied wrongdoing and said she retired only “to avoid prolonged investigation and protracted litigation.” They say retaliation against the complainants, including Garmoe and Stein, began soon thereafter.
Garmoe was stunned in November when he was ordered to see a psychologist to determine whether he was fit for duty. He was returned to work after passing the exam, but then placed on leave pending an investigation into his vehicle use. Stein was also placed on leave last month.
A termination letter faults Stein for missing a mandatory staff meeting and using a vehicle to briefly stop at his Des Moines home Nov. 16. He says he told his supervisor he would miss the meeting for an inspection, and that he used the vehicle to quickly retrieve an item he’d left at his nearby home.
Garmoe was faulted for putting 500 miles on a vehicle over two days driving to a factory that he failed to inspect. Garmoe said that he tried, but failed, to gain access to the gated facility. He said he feared he would get in trouble if he contacted management to let him in because his inspection was to be unannounced.
The letters accuse the men of leaving a vehicle running for two hours while conducting an inspection together Nov. 9. Both said that allegation was false and no such idling took place.
“The keys were in my pocket,” Stein said.
Stein and Garmoe, who had no prior discipline, are planning to challenge their firings.