The head of Iowa's workforce agency defended herself against accusations of mismanagement Wednesday, telling lawmakers that some people on her staff may be having hard time with policy changes.
Iowa Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert came before the Senate Government Oversight Committee during the second day of hearings on allegations of a hostile work environment. During the hearings, a former workforce judge has said he was unfairly fired and staffers questioned why they were told to keep quiet about the agency's decision to grant unemployment benefits to people who didn't seek them earlier this year.
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Wahlert, who was appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad in January 2011, said there was no effort to cover up the overpayment problem, which was caused by a technical glitch. To the management complaints, she said, that could stem from changes she's tried to make.
"I know that some personalities adapt to change more easily and quickly than others," Wahlert said.
Lawmakers raised concerns Wednesday about problems that led to overpayments of unemployment benefits in the spring. For one week in March, the agency issued benefits to everyone who got them the previous week after a system malfunction meant the agency couldn't process updated information from recipients. Officials said 85 people reported getting money they didn't seek, at a cost of up to $27,000, while about 30,000 people received accurate benefits.
But Sen. Janet Peterson, D-Des Moines, said the true cost of the system failure could be more, arguing some people may have not reported an excessive payment.
Jane Connor and Karen VonBehren, investigators with Iowa Workforce Development, told lawmakers the glitch meant they couldn't look into any potential fraud for that week. They both said they were troubled to receive an email from a supervisor telling them not to talk about the overpayment issues.
Wahlert said managers were trying to stop staffers from spreading inaccurate information.
The committee has for months been investigating allegations of a hostile work environment at state agencies, questionable hiring practices and misallocation of funds in Branstad's administration. Branstad, a Republican, says the committee run by Senate Democrats is motivated by politics.
On Tuesday, a former chief judge for the agency said he was fired because he stood up to Wahlert, who he said asserted her bias toward employers over workers.
Joe Walsh oversaw 15 unemployment appeals judges from 2010 until his dismissal in 2013. He told the committee Tuesday that Wahlert pushed him to develop tip sheets to help businesses avoid paying unemployment benefits and took other steps that signaled she was inserting her personal political beliefs into the job.
Wahlert said businesses have not benefited from more favorable treatment under her leadership, offering a chart that showed unemployment appeals cases settled in favor of the employer have declined during her tenure.