1. What legal protection does Iowa provide private sector employees in regard to whistleblowing and retaliation?
The general rule is that most employees may be fired at any time for any reason or for no reason at all under what is known as the at-will employment doctrine. However, in the past half-century, many exceptions to the general rule have emerged. Exceptions to this general rule can come from two sources: (1) courts, which modify and make “common law protections” or (2) the legislature, which enacts “statutory protections.” Statutory protections tend to be specific, addressing certain subject areas (such as discrimination, workers’ compensation, etc.). Yet, legislators often lack the foresight to address every possible situation of retaliation. Common law protections, on the other hand, tend to “fill the gaps” where no statute exists for a given situation.
Common Law Protections
Iowa recognizes a public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. An employer may not discharge an employee for a reason that violates a well-recognized and clearly defined public policy. An employee has a cause of action in other words, the employee may sue for wrongful discharge when the motivation for the discharge violates public policy.
To determine what constitutes public policy, Iowa courts will look to statutes and constitutional provisions to determine if a given practice has been endorsed (e.g. the right to collect workers’ compensation benefits) or prohibited (e.g. criminal laws prohibiting perjury). So, for example, because an Iowa statute endorses an employee’s right to collect workers’ compensation benefits, an employer who retaliates against an employee for invoking that right would be contravening public policy. On the other side of the same coin, because criminal statutes prohibit perjury, an employer who coerces an employee to commit perjury by threats of reprisal is also contravening Iowa’s public policy. In both situations, employees are protected from retaliatory discharge.
An employee must prove four elements: (1) that a clearly defined public policy exists to protect the employee’s activity, (2) that the public policy would be undermined by the employer’s retaliatory discharge, (3) that performing the protected activity caused the discharge, and (4) that there was no other justification for the discharge.
In addition, the Iowa General Assembly has adopted narrow statutory protections for certain activities. Employees who engage in protected activities (usually filing a complaint or testifying) under laws in the following subject areas are protected from retaliation: discrimination, genetic testing, occupational safety and health, and wage payment collection.
Common Law Protections
In addition to the above state protections, federal law provides workers with additional protections. Furthermore, a private contract or collective bargaining agreement may also protect employees from certain forms of retaliation.
2. What activities does state law protect, and to whom does this protection apply?
Common Law Protections
An employee may not be discharged for a reason that violates a well-recognized and clearly defined public policy of the state. Specifically, Iowa courts have protected the following activities:
- Refusing to participate in illegal activity
- Reporting illegal activity to a supervisor or appropriate civil authority
- Filing a workers’ compensation claim
- Filing for unemployment benefits
- Reporting child abuse
Public Employees: If a public employee reasonably believes there has been a violation of a law, mismanagement, a gross abuse of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific threat to public health and safety they can report it to an appropriate authority. Iowa Code § 70A.28.
Discrimination: An employee may not be retaliated against for opposing unlawful discrimination or obeying Iowa anti-discrimination laws. Nor may an employee be retaliated against for filing a complaint, testifying, or assisting in a proceeding under Iowa laws concerning unlawful discrimination. Iowa prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of age, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, religion, or disability. Iowa Code § 216.11(2).
Genetic Testing: An employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for filing a complaint, or testifying in a proceeding under an Iowa statute that prohibits employers from requiring a genetic test as a condition of employment. Iowa Code § 729.6(5).
Occupational Safety and Health: An employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for filing a complaint, instituting a proceeding, testifying in a proceeding, or exercising a right under Iowa laws concerning occupational safety and health.
In addition, an employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for refusing in good faith to be exposed to a dangerous condition a condition that could cause death or serious injury. There are several notable limitations to this statutory protection. First, when the employee refuses to expose himself to a dangerous condition, there must be no reasonable alternative to the refusal. Second, to constitute a dangerous condition, a reasonable person in the circumstances of the employee would have to conclude the condition as dangerous an employee with an unreasonable, idiosyncratic fear in the given circumstances is not protected under this statute. Third, the employee is required to attempt to resolve the matter through other enforcement means (such as by filing a complaint with OSHA), but only when possible. If the situation is urgent or if the employer has not responded to complaints regarding the dangerous condition, the employee is not required to exhaust these other enforcement methods. Iowa Code § 88.9(3).
Wage Payment Collection: An employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for filing a complaint, assigning a claim, bringing an action, or cooperating in bringing an action against an employer under the Iowa Wage Payment Collection Law a law that regulates the payment of wages. Iowa Code § 91A.10(5).
3. How do I file a whistleblower or retaliation claim in Iowa?
Generally: An employee may file a wrongful discharge lawsuit in an appropriate court. The lawsuit must be filed within 5 years ⚖ of the retaliatory action, unless otherwise specified by statute. If you believe you have a claim, you should contact a lawyer.
Public Employees: A public employee who believes they have suffered adverse action should file a claim within 30 days with the public employment relations board or within 30 days of the ruling by the ombudsman office. If you believe you have a claim, you should contact a lawyer.
Discrimination: An employee may file a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC). A complaint must be filed within 180 days ⚖ of the retaliatory action. If you believe you have a claim, you should contact the ICRC immediately. The ICRC provides information on filing a complaint, as well as a complaint form on their web site. ICRC can be reached at:
Iowa Civil Rights Commission
Grimes State Office Building
400 E. 14th Street
Des Moines, IA 50319-1004
Phone: 515-281-4121, 1-800-457-4416
Occupational Safety and Health: An employee may file a complaint with the labor commissioner of the Iowa Workforce Development. The complaint must be filed within 30 days of the retaliatory action. The commissioner will investigate and may pursue legal action to obtain appropriate relief on your behalf (including reinstatement with backpay). If you believe you have a claim, you should contact the Iowa Workforce Development office immediately.
Iowa Workforce Development
1000 East Grand Avenue
Des Moines, Iowa 50319-0209
Phone: (515) 281-5387 or (800) JOB-IOWA
Wage Payment Collection: An employee may file a complaint with the labor commissioner of the Iowa Workforce Development. The complaint must be filed within 30 days of the retaliatory action. The commissioner will investigate and may pursue legal action to obtain appropriate relief on your behalf (including reinstatement with back pay). If you believe you have a claim, you should contact the Iowa Workforce Development office immediately. Contact information is listed above.