Employees fired from Ohio workers’ comp panel claim religious discrimination, harassment

By Julie Carr Smyth, AP
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fired workers’ comp panel staff cries foul

COLUMBUS, Ohio — After a sweeping scandal nearly five years ago that cost the state’s insurance fund for injured workers $300 million because of investments in Beanie Babies, rare coins and other risky assets, Ohio beefed up oversight and created a panel to help lawmakers look out for the health of the fund.

Now, three years after lawmakers created the Ohio Workers’ Compensation Council to advise them on bills involving workers comp issues, the council finds itself entangled in chaos with a director accused of firing the entire staff amid allegations that she pushed her religion on employees.

The three fired workers each sent letters to council members Tuesday accusing Director Virginia McInerney of wrongful discharge, religious discrimination and harassment, age discrimination and retaliation.

They allege that McInerney, active in an evangelical megachurch northeast of Columbus and an occasional guest on “The 700 Club,” led the staff regularly in prayer, provided them with copies of “God at Work” CDs to listen to, and encouraged one to read a book she wrote titled “Single not Separate: How to Make the Church a Family.”

“It became increasingly clear that the Director was judging employees not on professional performance but on the quality of their faith, according to her beliefs,” former staff attorney Kim Finley alleges in her letter.

McInerney fired the employees Feb. 16 after tensions rose in the office. According to the letters, the three began to air their grievances toward her and she offered them a severance agreement to sign releasing her from any legal claims. All three refused to sign.

McInerney said late Wednesday that she saw no alternative under the law but to fire them. She said she could not discuss the ongoing case further.

“What I can tell you is that, simply, at this moment, I deny all the wrongdoing that those letters alleged,” she said.

The three dismissed women all were hired within the past year and appeared to have no blemishes on their state records, but McInerney said there were personnel issues with some of those involved.

Former executive assistant Sue Irwin said in her letter that McInerney gave her copies of the “God at Work” CD collection and had her take notes to share with the rest of the staff. She also asked Irwin “to join her in prayer to banish Satan’s influence from the office on multiple occasions,” her letter says.

Former staff attorney Shadya Yazback said McInerney “seemed incredulous” that Yazback’s Jewish-Christian upbringing had not led to a family tradition of churchgoing at Christmas. McInerney had praised her work, ethics and dedication to the job in an e-mail just three weeks before firing her.

Finley alleges that things got worse for her in the office after she wrote a legal opinion — at McInerney’s request — on whether the office prayers were appropriate. Her opinion, which she said was based on equal employment opportunity law, said the prayers were not appropriate. Afterward, McInerney focused “an inordinate amount of negative attention and energy” on her, Finley wrote.

Ohio House Minority Leader Bill Batchelder, a Republican, said he was disappointed to see the council he pushed for in trouble.

“All I was trying to do was make sure we didn’t have messes up at Workers’ Comp,” he said.

The council is a legislative agency and not affiliated with the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation at the heart of the scandal that began in 2005.

The council was created in 2007 after oversight of the state’s workers’ compensation fund was restructured following an array of convictions that began with investments of public money in rare coins and other collectibles by a former Republican fundraiser.

Batchelder served as its first chairman and recommended that McInerney, a longtime employee of the nonpartisan Ohio Legislative Service Commission, be hired as the first director. He praised her work record as a legislative analyst and said the allegations surprised him for two reasons.

“One, she’s very kindly. So probably if there was a problem she didn’t address it right away,” he said. “And it also surprised me because, quite frankly, I would think most people in this economy would want to work for her given what I know about her.”

Among McInerney’s other alleged acts was to ask Irwin to pray with her “for the Ohio Senate and particularly the Senators involved in proposing a resolution to privatize the workers’ compensation system.” Ohio’s is the largest publicly run insurance fund for injured workers in the U.S.

McInerney said “she felt that this was another of Satan’s efforts to stall or impede the Council’s progress,” according to Irwin’s letter. Privatization of the injured-worker fund presumably would eliminate the need for an advisory council created to monitor its use of public dollars.

The council’s current chairman, State Sen. Stephen Buehrer, said in a statement that the council will address the staffing issues but that he couldn’t comment further because of the threat of litigation.

The three employees are seeking to change the terms of their terminations from firings to a settlement.

On The Net:

Ohio Workers’ Compensation Council: www.wcc.state.oh.us

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