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Workplace Safety Regulators Flag 'COVID-19 Hazards' At Iowa Capitol

Members in the Iowa House take the oath of office during the opening day of the Iowa Legislature, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall
Members in the Iowa House take the oath of office in January during the opening day of the Iowa Legislature.

State workplace safety regulators sent a letter last week to the Republican leaders of the Iowa Legislature that says conditions at the Statehouse “may expose workers to COVID-19 hazards.”

The Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted an inspection of the Iowa State Capitol on Jan. 26, after labor unions filed a complaint about the conditions there.

The letter from IOSHA says they didn’t find a violation of state law related to COVID-19 mitigation efforts, but inspectors did identify potential hazards. They include social distancing not always being practiced and enforced, temperature checks not being conducted on all people entering the building, employees not being required to report positive coronavirus tests to leadership, and a lack of determining whether positive cases were work-related.

“To ensure that COVID-19 related hazards are properly identified and addressed at your workplace, please facilitate immediate corrective actions where needed,” reads the letter dated April 13.

The letter was addressed to Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, Senate President Jake Chapman, House Speaker Pat Grassley and House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl. Because Republicans hold majorities in the House and Senate, they got to set the rules for conducting a mostly in-person legislative session during the pandemic.

The letter from IOSHA doesn’t mention face coverings, but leaders also did not require mask wearing at the Statehouse.

Legislative officials have reported 10 cases of COVID-19 since the session started in January. Rep. Amy Nielsen, D-North Liberty, believes she got COVID-19 at the Statehouse, and has been ill for months.

House Republican spokesperson Melissa Deatsch called the IOSHA inspection a “politically-contrived investigation” that did not find infractions related to COVID-19.

“Leadership has taken extensive efforts since January to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and will continue to do so for the remainder of the 2021 legislative session,” Deatsch said.

Whitver said in a statement the “politically motivated” IOSHA investigation confirmed that the Iowa Senate’s protocols complied with the law. IOSHA did not issue citations or fines related to COVID-19.

“Over the course of more than 14 weeks, the Iowa Senate has been notified of only two positives cases and the measures in place are working,” Whitver said.

The Senate allowed members of the public and lobbyists to testify on proposed legislation via Zoom, while the House held fully in-person meetings that were broadcast online but did not have a virtual option for those wishing to participate.

Democratic leaders and the Iowa Public Health Association have previously raised concerns about conditions at the Statehouse.

“Today’s OSHA report is yet another example of how Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Reynolds have failed to keep Iowans healthy and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said in a statement Monday. “How can the people of Iowa expect Republicans to keep them safe if Republican leaders can’t even keep their own workplace safe?”

Iowa’s 2021 legislative session is expected to end in the next few weeks, with lawmakers’ per diem expenses ending April 30.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter