Clashes Led to Firings, Discrimination Claims at Ohio Work Comp Council

March 10, 2010

Internal pressure was mounting for months ahead of the February firings of the staff of an agency charged with protecting the well-being of Ohio’s insurance fund for injured workers.

Public records obtained by The Associated Press reveal frustration among the three staffers of the Ohio Workers’ Compensation Council formed in the wake of a sweeping state investment scandal.

Employees complained about the leadership style and priorities of Director Virginia McInerney. McInerney viewed the staff as often disrespectful, moody and at times uncooperative.

Caught in the cross hairs was an important analysis the office was preparing on legislation aimed at slowing down controversial changes to the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation group insurance discounts for employers.

Ohio operates the largest public insurance fund for injured workers in the U.S. and the group discounts have been a key sticking point. The bureau is in the process of adjusting the rates after a judge ruled the so-called group rating program unfair to many businesses.

The proposed adjustments would in some cases sock longtime favored customers, many large companies with political pull, with higher rates in order to provide discounts to other businesses.

McInerney fired all three employees – two staff attorneys and an executive assistant – on Feb. 16, throwing the council’s work into chaos. The three accused her in letters sent to council members of wrongful discharge, religious discrimination and harassment, age discrimination and retaliation.

Attorney Shadya Yazback, who was working on the analysis, complained in a Jan. 18 e-mail to colleague Sue Irwin that McInerney repeatedly refused to give her solid answers on what the office’s policy recommendation would be on the group discount bill.

“another thing she won’t talk or think about,” Yazback wrote. “but her feelings and hopes and dreams and gardens and phone lines and lunch hours and paint samples and desk arrangements and smudge marks on the desk, we deal with. immediately.”

McInerney acknowledged Yazback’s frustration in a log of employee behavior that she appeared to be keeping regularly.

“I explained that I needed to review on many levels, assessing and weighing various things – not just accuracy, grammar and typos, but tone and political sensitivities, etc.”

State Rep. Dan Dodd, a member of the council and chairman of the House Insurance Committee, has questioned whether the office under McInerney was too politically sensitive and compromised the objectivity of its analysis of the bill involving workers’ comp discounts.

McInerney, a veteran employee of the nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission, has strongly denied that partisanship played any role in the office’s work. The analysis provided to the council last month contained no recommendation at all, however, on whether the bill on discounts should be approved or rejected.

That was apparently the unanimous recommendation of a council of advisers appointed to guide the office.

A cousin council that watches out for the health of Ohio pension funds has always viewed as its charge making a specific recommendation on bills, said Ohio Retirement Study Council director Aristotle Hutras.

“The ORSC recommends either to approve or to disapprove,” he said. “That’s certainly the role of the council as distinct from the (nonpartisan) Legislative Service Commission.”

According to the newly released documents, Workers Compensation Administrator Marsha Ryan joined Dodd’s call earlier this week for council chairman Stephen Buehrer, a Republican state senator, to convene the full workers’ comp council to discuss the firings. Buehrer had not yet done so Friday.

Dodd and other Democrats have accused House Republican Leader Bill Batchelder of inappropriate communications with McInerney, whose analysis of the group rating bill ultimately included no recommendation at all on the impact it could have on the state’s workers’ comp fund. Batchelder recommended McInerney’s hiring after spearheading creation of the council in 2007 and being named its first chair.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Batchelder said he has never advised McInerney on any legislation.

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