IOWA CITY — A review board has overturned the firing of an Iowa workplace safety inspector, finding he unfairly faced retribution after reporting a hostile work environment inside the agency.
Managers at the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration acted with “express bias” when they opened a disciplinary investigation into Travis Stein for missing a meeting in November 2018, the Public Employment Relations Board found.
The agency never before had punished a worker for missing an all-staff meeting, which was a routine occurrence, and the investigation of Stein was unfair and incomplete, the board ruled.
Stein said Tuesday the ruling backs his claim that his January 2019 firing was motivated by retaliation.
“I feel like the truth is out. It’s almost like redemption,” he said. “I’m happy in the fact that everything worked out in the end. But I’m sad that I had to deal with all of that mental, emotional, physical and financial stress. No one should have to deal with that.”
Stein said that after he was fired, he was forced to sell the “dream home” he had purchased in Des Moines, where he had lived for nearly two decades. Last year, he moved away from his friends and family to take a job at the federal OSHA office in Kansas City.
The ruling ordered Stein be reinstated with back pay and benefits. In practical terms, it means Stein likely will be owed pay for weeks of missed work before the federal agency hired him for a similar position.
Managers targeted Stein weeks after he cooperated with an investigation into allegations of retaliation, bullying and favoritism in their office. His supervisor, Deborah Babb, retired under pressure after the inquiry, which angered Babb and then-Commissioner of Labor Michael Mauro and Deputy Commissioner Pam Conner.
Three employees who were interviewed during the investigation — Stein, inspector Jason Garmoe and Iowa OSHA director Jens Nissen — said they told the truth about a dysfunctional workplace environment during Mauro’s tenure and were unfairly fired afterward.
Mauro retired in 2019 with years left on his term. Conner also departed from the agency.
The Public Employment Relations Board is scheduled to hear testimony in Nissen’s whistleblower case in May. Garmoe said Tuesday that he also intends to pursue a wrongful termination claim, potentially through a lawsuit.
The board’s decision blasted the investigation of Stein by agency human resources official Andrea Macy, who now conducts investigations into sexual harassment and discrimination involving state executive branch employees.
Managers unfairly requested the investigation after Stein missed the November 2018 meeting, the board said, and nobody considered the long history of allowing employees to do so without consequence.
Macy failed to uncover critical facts and drew incorrect inferences, the board found. In particular, Macy failed to learn that Stein told his manager Gary Beer that he was in Ottumwa investigating a worker’s injury, would be unlikely to attend the meeting and was told only do his best to make it.
Instead, she relied on Beer’s incorrect suggestions that Stein’s absence was insubordination and that he was wasting time in Ottumwa, it found.
Macy and Beer didn’t immediately return messages.
In addition, the investigation accused Stein of using a state vehicle for personal reasons when he stopped briefly at his home to retrieve a work notebook and identification. The board ruled the stop, while on the way to interview an injured worker, was for business purposes.