Effective today, October 29, 2021, Iowa enacted new law codifying extremely broad health and religious exemptions to employers’ mandates of COVID-19 vaccination for their workforce, ensuring compensation for the worker. unemployment – and arguably creating a new “public policy” that will serve as the basis for allegations of wrongful discharge. Nyemaster has discussed the details of the new law elsewhere. In summary, the new law requires employers who require their employees to vaccinate their employees against COVID-19 to “waive” the vaccine requirement if the employee provides any of the following statements: (1) receive the vaccine would be “harmful” to the health and well-being of the employee “or of a natural person residing with the employee”; or (2) receiving the vaccine would conflict with the principles and practices of a religion to which the employee is a adherent or member. In this article, we examine whether the law creates a risk of unjustified public order rejection.
Simply put, the new Iowa Code § 94.1 and § 94.2 essentially allows anyone to refuse a vaccine for any reason. The employer is required to let them do it. In fact, it could be argued that the dismissal of a person who provides a waiver not only exposes the employer to liability for unemployment benefits, but also to what is sometimes referred to as a “Springer claim”. The law arguably provides the basis for an employee who has been terminated following a denial of a “waiver” of an employer’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate after providing a statement in accordance with the new law to take legal action for unfair dismissal in violation of public order. political because section 94.2 (1) is the “policy” of the state.
Four decades ago, in Shelter c. Pulley Freight Lines, Inc., 270 NW2d 454 455 (Iowa 1978), the Iowa Supreme Court stated that in appropriate circumstances it would recognize a common law action for wrongful discharge contrary to public policy. See Niblo v. Parr Mfr., Inc., 445 NW2d 351 (Iowa 1989). More recently, the court adopted the public policy exception and applied it in a case where the dismissal was allegedly the result of a workers’ compensation claim. Springer vs. Weeks & Leo Co., 429 NW2d 558, 560-61 (Iowa 1988).
In Springer, the court ruled that an at-will employee who had been dismissed for exercising his statutory right to workers’ compensation could sue for wrongful dismissal. See Springer v Weeks & Leo Co., Inc., 429 NW2d 558, 560-61 (Iowa 1988). Springer involved a request for dismissal in retaliation. The Claimant received Workers’ Compensation Benefits while on leave following surgery to correct work-related carpal tunnel syndrome. The plaintiff testified at trial that her employer refused to allow her to return to work until she signed a document stating that her carpal tunnel syndrome problems were not work-related. The applicant refused and was eventually released. The trial court ruled in favor of the defendant on the grounds that the plaintiff was an employee at will and could be dismissed for any reason. The Supreme Court overturned the decision, ruling that a tort action would be brought when an employee is fired for filing a workers’ compensation claim.
The court noted that its decision in Springer involved a discharge which would have been in violation of a “clear expression” of state public policy. The court said: “We believe that a cause of action should exist for tortious interference with the tenancy agreement when the discharge serves to thwart a well-recognized and defined public policy of the state.” Springer v Weeks & Leo Co., Inc., 429 NW2d 558, 560-61 (Iowa 1988). The court cited examples of courts in other jurisdictions granting remedies for dismissal of employees at will for reasons deemed contrary to public order. Each of the decisions cited in Springer involve alleged violations of clearly expressed public policies. See Petermann v. International Bhd. of Teamsters, 174 Cal. App. 2d 184, 188-89 344 P.2d 25, 27 (1959) (release for refusal of employee to perjure himself at the request of the employer); Parner Hotels c. Americana, 65 Ah. 370, 379-80, 652 P.2d 625, 631 (1982) (release of employee for cooperation with grand jury investigating employer’s anti-competitive business practices); Palmateer v. International Harvester Pass, 85 Ill. 2d 124, 130, 421 NE2d 876, 879-80 (1981) (discharge of employee for providing law enforcement authorities with information regarding criminal acts of colleague); Monge c. Beebe Rubber Co., 114 NH 130, 133, 316 A. 2d 549, 551 (1974) (dismissal of employee for refusal to submit to sexual advances by supervisor); Nees v. Hocks, 272 Or. 210, 218-19, 536 P. 2d 512, 514-15 (1975) (release of an employee for having sat on a jury).
In Niblo v. Parr Mafr. Inc., 445 NW2d 351 (Iowa 1989), the Iowa Supreme Court extended the Springer doctrine to cases in which the employee-plaintiff is released for threatening to file a workers’ compensation claim.
The Supreme Court has refused to recognize a common law tort action for retaliatory termination, except where the employer’s conduct contravenes a “clearly articulated” public policy of the state. Wilcox v. Hy-Vee Food Stores, Inc., 458 NW2d 870 872 (Iowa App. 1990); see also Conaway v. Webster City Products Co., 431 NW2d 795 (Iowa 1988).
Although the Iowa Unemployment Compensation Act prohibits the use of an unemployment benefit claim result to serve as the basis for a wrongful dismissal lawsuit, the prohibition extends only to conclusions and determinations. See Iowa Code § 96.6 (4) (2021). The plaintiff could arguably be able to assert a claim for wrongful dismissal on the basis of the phrase “public order” in the new law without relying on the outcome of a claim for unemployment benefits.
The law only penalizes the employer who has made the decision to fire an unvaccinated employee. One could claim that it clearly expresses the public order of the legislator.
Iowa’s new law is on a direct collision course with federal vaccine mandates. Legal issues related to the law will be discussed elsewhere.