Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer has taken a concern about Iowa workers’ safety directly to Gov. Kim Reynolds with a letter outlining recent assaults at state facilities and Reynolds’ administration’s effort to reduce the number of public sector jobs.
Finkenauer said in a June 7 letter to the governor, “The gutting of collective bargaining rights — most notably with the passage of House File 291 in 2017 — and significant reductions to staffing have undermined protections for our state employees to the point where their physical safety is now at risk.”
The congresswoman’s letter, which requests information on the state’s “protocols and standards for the prevention of workplace violence” and data about assaults on public employees, comes in the wake of a May 29 Des Moines Register article about a nurse who was beaten by a patient at the Independence Mental Health Institute.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether they intended to comply with Finkenauer’s requests.
The article details the attack on Tina Suckow, who said she was fired because she required extensive time off due to serious head, knee, and shoulder injuries.
“There is no excuse for what occurred in Independence, and the attack raises serious concerns about the processes currently in place to mitigate the risk of workplace violence,” Finkenauer wrote.
She also pointed to an October 2018 incident at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, in which correctional officer Jesse Burgher was stabbed by an inmate.
“Public employees keep our communities safe and help the most vulnerable and at-risk Iowans,” said Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61, in a statement. “Instead of stepping up for its employees and protecting them, the state has repeatedly ignored their concerns and dangerously low staffing levels and unsafe working conditions.”
Finkenauer is a co-sponsor on H.R. 1309 in the U.S. House of Representatives, the “Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act,” aimed at better protecting health, social services and other public employees “on the frontlines” from workplace violence.
Introduced to the House in February, the bill passed Tuesday through the Democrat-controlled Committee on Education and Labor.
According to a press release issued by the committee in the wake of the legislation’s passage, “The bill forces the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue a standard requiring employers to implement violence prevention plans, which are proven to reduce workplace violence.”
The incidents with Suckow, Burgher and countless others are due in part, Finkenauer argued, to understaffing at state facilities.
In her letter, she pointed to a May 28 Register article detailing the nearly 3,000 executive branch jobs eliminated in Iowa since 2011.
In the prison system, the Register reported, nearly 400 corrections positions were eliminated over the last seven years.
Democratic lawmakers, labor leaders and concerned citizens have argued the staff reductions create an unsafe work environment for employees in critical positions.
“Hardworking Iowans need to know that their safety is never up for debate,” Finkenauer said in a statement. “They know what they need to do their job well and safely. They deserve a government that will listen and have their backs, rather than ignoring or politicizing their concerns.”
Finkenauer, the daughter of a union welder, made uplifting blue-collar workers a central part of her 2018 congressional campaign and has continued to prioritize their concerns during her first term in office.
The most recent example of Finkenauer’s concerns came May 29, when, according to AFSCME Council 61, a support staff member at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville was assaulted by an inmate in what the union called a “preventable” incident “indicative of a dangerous trend of prioritizing inmate independence over staff safety.”
In a statement Thursday, Homan blamed facility warden Jim McKinney for “forcing” nurses to deliver medications on units with only one correctional officer present.
“Between dangerously low staffing levels and a prioritization of inmate privileges over staff safety, employees within IMCC report morale being at an all-time low,” Homan said.
By Elizabeth Meyer
Finkenauer photo by Julie Fleming