Metro Weekly

Transgender prison nurse in Iowa sues employer for discrimination

The Iowa Department of Corrections is accused of violating the state's civil rights law

Jesse Vroegh and his wife – Photo: ACLU of Iowa.

A transgender nurse is suing the Iowa Department of Corrections for denying him access to men’s restrooms and locker rooms, and denying coverage for medically necessary health care.

The lawsuit is believed to be the first transgender rights case filed in Iowa courts since 2007, when state lawmakers passed a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The lawsuit claims the Department of Corrections violated that exact law by refusing to treat Jesse Vroegh according to his gender identity.

Vroegh claims that his supervisors denied him access to men’s facilities even after he transitioned and presented as male for several months. In 2016, Vroegh’s supervisors told him and his union representative that they had decided to bar Vroegh from male-only spaces because transgender issues were “too controversial.”

Instead, they demanded that Vroegh be forced to use a unisex private restroom to dress and store his belongings, isolating him from his co-workers. Because the unisex restroom didn’t have a shower, he was effectively barred from being able to shower before or after his shift.

“Jesse has a right to fair and equal treatment in the workplace, as do all Iowans,” Rita Bettis, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa, said in a statement. “It’s disappointing that this case involves the State of Iowa, which should be providing leadership in creating work environments that are free from discrimination based on gender identity. But here, unfortunately, it has done just the opposite.”

The lawsuit also claims the Department of Corrections refused to provide coverage for transition-related surgical procedures, even though cisgender employees who need procedures like mastectomies can have them covered by insurance.

“The DOC has further discriminated against Vroegh by denying him coverage for his medically necessary healthcare for no reason other than his being transgender,” Bettis added. “The same type of surgical procedures that Vroegh needs are covered for state employees who are not transgender. This is the kind of discrimination Iowa law prohibits.”

Vroegh had previously filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission alleging that he had been discriminated against. In late March, the commission determined there was a “reasonable possibility” that it would later make a “probable cause determination” that the Department of Corrections discriminated against Vroegh.

“Transgender Iowans are just as important to the workplace and the community as anyone else,” Melissa Hasso, one of Vroegh’s attorneys, said in a statement. “Jesse simply wants to be treated equally. The Iowa Civil Rights Act and the Iowa Constitution guarantee him that right.

“It is disappointing that the State of Iowa, through the Department of Corrections, has once again made the decision not to follow its own laws on this point,” added Hasso. “The State has repeatedly taken this position to the taxpayers’ detriment, as demonstrated by recent verdicts in favor of other state employees who suffered workplace discrimination. We would very much like to see the State take a leadership role in eliminating workplace discrimination rather than excusing it.”

Vroegh has since left his DOC job and has become an assistant director of nursing at a private facility, where he is allowed to use men’s facilities. His medical coverage at the new employer hasn’t started yet, so it’s unknown whether he will be able to obtain coverage for medically necessary transition-related care.

“This process has not been easy,” Vroegh said in a statement. “I’m doing it because I feel I need to fight for the rights not only of transgender people who work for the state but for other Iowa workers as well. I’m not asking for any special treatment of myself or any other transgender person. All I’m asking for is that transgender people be treated the same way as people who are not transgender.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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