An administrative judge is quitting and politicians are calling for an investigation after reports that the head of Iowa Workforce Development is pressuring unemployment compensation judges to side with employers over employees.
State Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D) didn’t pull any punches after hearing about the allegations. “I cannot condemn in more firm words the actions of the director to instruct administrative law judges to screw Iowans out of their benefits,” Gronstal said.
Bonny Hendricksmuier has been one of those administrative judges for the past 23-years. But she’s quitting because of what she calls a hostile work environment caused by the director.
“I can not deal with this,” Judge Hendricksmuier says. “Every week or so it’s a new set of rules. It’s a new e-mail. You see a certain from on your e-mail, you get sick to your stomach. What’s going to happen now?”
Director Teresa Walhert, who was appointed to the position by Governor Branstad is accused of trying to steer judges decisions. She is also accused of requiring judges to give employers tips on how to avoid unemployment benefits cases.
“Certainly I have classified all of these tip sheets that she has asked for judges to do to be providing free legal advice for employers,” Judge Hendricksmuier says.
Former Chief Administrative Judge Joe Walsh used to oversee the judges, until he was laid off and replaced by Walhert. “The main aspect of her management style is she uses a lot of fear. She tries to make people scared of her and that’s how she gets them to do things,” Walsh says. “A political appointee should not be managing judges. That is a fundamental problem with the organizational structure, with the way it’s set up. And until they do that I don’t see any way to fix it.”
A spokesman for Governor Branstad did not return our calls for a comment, but his re-election campaign did release a statement saying “We are confident that once the partisan shouting dies down and the facts come out, Iowans will see these allegations for the baseless, sophomoric and political claims that they are.”
The judges also say they’re over-worked, and one, who asked not to have his name aired, says often more work is piled on as punishment making it difficult to make the best decisions.
Judge Hendricksmuier agrees, sometimes it can be too much, and that’s why she is stepping down.
“With 30 hearings a week, sometimes it’s a matter of sheer exhaustion. There have been times, as I say we have to type all our decisions, and I have after the end of the day after seven or eight hearings am sitting there with my hands on the keyboard and my mind a complete blank even though I should know very well what to write. It’s just sheer exhaustion,” she says.
A spokeswoman with Iowa Workforce Development did not return our call for comment.