Fired Ohio Workers’ Compensation Board Employees Allege Religious Bias

By | March 5, 2010

The staff of a board created to monitor legislation affecting Ohio’s massive injured worker insurance fund after a rare coin investment scandal has been fired, plunging its oversight role into chaos.

The three fired employees have accused the director of the Ohio Workers’ Compensation Council of wrongful discharge, age discrimination, religious discrimination and harassment and retaliation.

Staff attorneys Kim Finley and Shadya Yazback and executive assistant Sue Irwin said director Virginia McInerney described the importance of her Christian faith to all of them early in their employment and sought to make it central to the office’s work, according to letters the women sent to members of the council Tuesday. The Associated Press obtained and reviewed copies of the letters.

McInerney led the staff regularly in prayer, provided them with copies of a series of “God at Work” CDs to listen to, and encouraged Yazback “on many occasions” to read a book she wrote, “Single not Separate: How to Make the Church a Family,” the letters said.

McInerney fired all three employees Feb. 16 after tensions rose in the office. The staff began to air its grievances toward her, and she finally offered them a severance agreement to sign releasing her from any legal claims. All three refused to sign. A message seeking comment was left for her on Wednesday.

The women were all hired within the past year and appeared to have no blemishes on their state records.

According to biographical information on McInerney’s personal Web site, she is a speaker at The Vineyard Church of Columbus, an evangelical megachurch northeast of the city.

Irwin, in her letter, said 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,” according to the letter.

Finley alleges 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, 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.

“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,” her letter said.

Yazback said McInerney “seemed incredulous” that her 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.

Ohio House Minority Leader Bill Batchelder, a Medina Republican, said he was surprised to hear of the allegations against McInerney.

He pushed for creation of the council 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 the council’s first chairman and recommended that McInerney, a longtime employee of the nonpartisan Ohio Legislative Service Commission, be hired as the first director. He 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 told Irwin, the letter said, “she felt that this was another of Satan’s efforts to stall or impede the Council’s progress.” Privatization of the injured-worker fund presumably would eliminate the need for an advisory council created to monitor its use of public dollars.

A message was left with state Sen. Stephen Buehrer, the council’s current chairman, seeking comment. The three employees are seeking to change the terms of their terminations from firings to a settlement.

Topics Workers' Compensation Talent Ohio Church

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