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April 29th, 2014

Rants: Settlements with ex-state workers – a ‘tempest in a teapot’

Written by Christopher Rants
Former Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives
Originally published by the Sioux City Journal

The adjournment of the Iowa Legislature has been protracted by some grand political theater staged by the Des Moines Register and Senate Democrats looking to blacken Gov. Terry Branstad’s eye before heading off to campaign.

Now I enjoy political theater, having been a part of a few comedies and tragedies myself. But there is potential for this to get out of hand with unintended consequences hurting real people.

Let’s go back a month to when the Register “uncovered” a “scandal” of “secret settlements” and “hush money” carried out by the Branstad administration. In other words, a reporter wrote about the practice of terminating employees and as part of a severance package both sides signing a confidentiality agreement. It is a long-standing practice, much to the chagrin of former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, who publicly gave great cries of lamentations about Branstad on WHO-TV’s version of “Meet the Press,” as such agreements were also made by the Culver and Vilsack administrations.

Determined to get to the bottom of such actions, or more likely determined to keep the story alive, the Legislative Oversight Committee has been holding hearings every other day. Governor Branstad claimed ignorance of such agreements and then condemned them, while Republicans in the House passed a bill forbidding such actions in the future. I understand the political motives of Senate Democrats in creating a scandal to help one of their own, State Sen. Jack Hatch, in his quest to find an issue that could unseat Branstad. But I’m disappointed in the governor and Republicans for playing a part in the theater.

The governor should have stood up and said this is a legitimate employer practice that protects both the employer (taxpayers) and employee. People who claim they want government to function more like the private sector should know that this happens in the private sector routinely. Both parties find it advantageous, otherwise they wouldn’t agree.

There are three things readers should know about this tempest in a teapot.

First, there was no partisanship behind the firings. Headlines to the contrary, those terminated who testified denied partisan actions. So let’s set that aside. This was about reorganization of departments. Positions have been reclassified from “merit” or union positions to “at-will.” No doubt that doesn’t sit well with AFSCME, the public employees’ union, or the Democrats, but it is very much in line with Branstad’s campaign promise four years ago if elected. He won, he cut the number of employees. No hidden agenda there.

Second, confidentiality agreements are not a bad thing and serve to protect employees, as well as employers. The Register makes it sound like hush money to cover up the nefarious purposes of the employer. It’s difficult for me to believe that Gannett, its parent company, has never terminated an employee with a severance and confidentiality agreement package.

Maybe John has a drinking problem and comes in to work late every day or Mary likes to spend too much time visiting on-line gambling sites at her work terminal. Good cause for termination for both. But because John is also 62 years old, and Mary is a female, their employer wants to ensure they don’t come back six days later arguing discrimination, so they offer a severance package. Because John and Mary don’t want their bad habits held out for the world to see, they also sign confidentiality agreements. Does the public have a right or a need to know? I don’t believe so. Iowa code 22.7(11) already states that if an employee was fired for disciplinary reasons, that can be made public, but that’s it. That is good enough for me.

Third, that brings us to the “Black Lists” or the “Do Not Hire Lists” – a revelation found at the bottom of the teapot after the tempest. State government keeps a list of fired employees that should not be rehired by another agency or department. That is a good thing. Mark is a cook at a state facility (i.e., veterans home, prison, or hospital) and he’s caught spitting in someone’s food and terminated. He should not be hired at another state facility a hundred miles down the road. You get the idea. Iowa law, Section 730.1, allows an internal blacklist within an employer, in this case the state. You cannot, however, try to blacklist someone with an outside agency. That is fair.

As the curtain falls on this political stage it’s worth remembering that supporting cast member AFSCME has specifically agreed to these confidentiality agreements in their collective bargaining agreement. Could it be that AFSCME President Danny Homan and I have found common ground? Their part, thus far, hasn’t had any lines in this stage(d) production.

About the Author

The Iowa Republican

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