Iowa manager to retire after inquiry
IOWA CITY (AP) — An Iowa administrator will retire after criticizing a state investigation that found she created a hostile work environment for judges who rule on unemployment benefits disputes, records show.
Iowa Workforce Development has for months sought to keep secret the details of the investigation into Emily Chafa, chief of its unemployment insurance appeals bureau. Director Beth Townsend and aides have refused to answer questions or release records requested by The Associated Press, including the reason Chafa was removed from the building and paid to stay home from work for a month this spring.
But records recently filed by Chafa’s attorney in a disciplinary appeal show that she was placed on paid leave March 8 amid an inquiry into her workplace behavior. The investigation found Chafa treated subordinates “disrespectfully and discourteously which has created an uncomfortable, unprofessional work environment,” according to an April 8 letter.
The letter notified Chafa she was receiving the equivalent of a three-day suspension and final warning. She was allowed to return to work but directed to make changes to how she managed the office, to “be cognizant of the tone and volume of your voice” and “refrain from disparaging or demeaning remarks.”
A May decision, by a state lawyer who upheld Chafa’s suspension, said her subordinates overwhelmingly described negative experiences to investigators, working in an environment of fear and receiving a lack of support. They told investigators that Chafa was known to lose her temper and dress down employees in public and that they feared retaliation for questioning her, the decision said.
Chafa and her attorney, Paige Fiedler, have disputed those allegations and criticized how she has been treated. They said she was escorted from the building to “publicly shame her” and subjected to an investigation that was designed to elicit negative information about an employee previously seen as stellar.
Chafa had been the division manager since 2015, overseeing a dozen administrative law judges who rule on unemployment appeals and support staff. She was hired after a U.S. Department of Labor investigation expressed concern that judges were facing improper political pressures to rule in favor of employers and against workers seeking benefits. The department ordered that Chafa’s position be part of Iowa’s merit system, not a political appointment as it had been.
In an April 29 letter appealing the suspension, Fiedler wrote that it was becoming increasingly difficult for Chafa to continue to shield judges from political influence. She wrote that Townsend had elevated managers “who appear to be chosen for their personal and political loyalty rather than for any particular experience or competence related to the mission of the agency.”
The appeal included Chafa’s most recent performance reviews that found she exceeded expectations. One signed by IWD’s deputy director in March 2018 praised Chafa’s communication and teamwork and credited her with ensuring appeals were addressed within federal timelines. “Emily has turned the Appeals Unit into one of the highest performing in the region and nationally,” it read.
Chafa, a lawyer who made $137,000 annually, has complained that the agency hasn’t given specifics about her alleged inappropriate behavior. She contends that a judge filed the complaint that prompted the investigation after Chafa scolded her for failing to show up to a November appeal hearing.
In a new appeal of her discipline this month, Chafa indicated that she is on an extended vacation before retiring July 11. She complained that the agency has cut off her ability to access email and her office and asked for that to be restored so she can gather her items.
Townsend refused to confirm Chafa was on leave or under investigation this spring. On April 9, the day after the investigation concluded, department lawyer Nicholas Olivencia denied AP’s request for the date Chafa was removed, the notice she was given explaining why and the investigation’s findings. He didn’t cite any exemptions as required by the Iowa Open Records Act. Asked again, Olivencia said in a letter last week that Chafa is “a current employee” and refused to release records.
Copyright 2019 The Associated Press.