Talking dirty at work not enough to get you fired, rules judge

DES MOINES, Iowa — Can an Iowa businessman who sells "Wake The F Up" coffee fire an employee for having a sexually explicit conversation at work?

Not without fair warning, an Iowa judge has ruled.

Wellma "Tootie" Shafer of Seymour was terminated in January from the Last Chance Market in the small, southern Iowa town of Russell. For 18 months, Shafer worked as a cashier for the restaurant, which includes a convenience store.

Her boss, Rick Braaksma, alleged that Shafer, 46, was working in the store one day in January when she and a customer began discussing various sexual activities. He said he fired Shafer after fielding complaints from other customers who overheard the conversation, according to state records.

Her dismissal came to light when Shafer sought unemployment benefits, which Braaksma challenged at a public hearing before an administrative law judge.

At the hearing, Braaksma argued that Shafer was guilty of misconduct because her discussion with the customer was inappropriate.

"They were standing at the cash register talking about dirty, adult situations," he testified. "I told (Shafer) we do not run our store like that. We cannot stand there and talk about adult situations in front of other customers."

Shafer denied any such conversation and said profanity and off-color humor were part of the work environment at the Last Chance Market. As evidence, she produced a photo of store products labeled with profane language and depictions of women's anatomy.

"There's jelly beans, salsa, hot sauces and all kinds of different things about women's (bodies)," she testified. "There's a whole shelf referring to — well, excuse me — but there's one can called 'The Hottest F---in' Nuts.' "

She said the store also sells a brand of coffee named "Wake The F Up," the label of which reads: "This coffee makes a seriously strong cup of Joe. It will put some stride in your step and some lead in your pencil — not to mention that you will probably reorganize the garage and finally get to the lawn. Wake the F up and live!"

State records indicate the store also sells a brand of hot sauce called "The Hottest F---in' Wing Sauce," which is labeled as having an "ass-burning" quality that will inspire the consumer to "scream '(expletive)' at the top of your lungs."

After Braaksma testified that he doesn't tolerate dirty jokes in his store, Administrative Law Judge Beth Scheetz asked him, "So why don't you remove these articles from your shelves?"

"Because we sell them," he said.

"They are dirty jokes on your shelves, basically," Scheetz said.

"No, they're bottles of hot sauce," Braaksma responded. "It's all right to have dirty words on the premises because the farmers come in there and eat lunch all the time and that's just, uh, kind of ... "

"So dirty words are OK," Scheetz said.

"Yeah," Braaksma said, "but there's a time and a place for it."

Scheetz awarded Shafer unemployment benefits, noting that Braaksma had not warned the cashier of any problems with her work performance before terminating her employment.

Shafer said she's still looking for work, adding that Braaksma has banned her from shopping at the Last Chance Market. "And you know, he still has this big sign right where you go in, a metal sign, that says, 'Shirts and shoes are required, but bras and panties are optional,' " she said.

Braaksma would not comment on the case, telling The Des Moines Register, "I don't want my store's name in no (expletive) news story."


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