The 2017 Iowa legislative session resulted in an overhaul of certain provisions of the Iowa Workers’ Compensation statutes.
New amendments apply to work-related injuries that occurred on or after July 1, 2017. Unfortunately, the majority of the changes create more hurdles for injured workers to obtain benefits. Prior laws apply to all workplace injuries that occurred before July 1, 2017. The following represents the highlights of the significant changes to the Iowa Workers’ Compensation laws:
- Historically, an employer could assert intoxication as an affirmative defense. Accordingly, the employer had the burden of proof to establish that the injured worker’s intoxication was a substantial factor in causing the injury.
The new amendments effective July 1, 2017, create a rebuttable presumption that an employee’s intoxication was a substantial factor in causing the injury if the employer can prove the employee was intoxicated either at the time of injury or immediately following the injury. The new amendments also shift the burden of proof from the employer to the injured worker to refute the presumption that intoxication was a substantial factor in causing the injury.
- Light Duty Work. For all work-related injuries prior to July 1, 2017, when an employee has suffered a workplace injury and is unable to perform regular duties associated with the job position, the employer has the option of either paying healing period benefits or providing suitable light duty work for the injured employee. If the employer offers light duty work with suitable restrictions and the employee refuses, then the employee is not entitled to healing period benefits during the period of refusal.
The new amendments of the Iowa Workers’ Compensation laws effective July 1, 2017, could profoundly impact injured mobile employees who spend the majority of time traveling away from the employer’s principal place of business or established place of operation, such as truck drivers. Specifically, the amendments provide that light work offered to an employee at the employer’s principal place of business or an established place of operation where the employee has previously worked is presumably geographically suitable.
Furthermore, the new amendments require the employer to communicate in writing the (1) offer of light duty work to the employee and (2) the consequences of refusing the light duty work. Should the employee chose to reject the offer of light duty work, the employee must provide written notice of any refusal as well as the reason for refusal to the employer.
- Industrial Disability and Loss of Earning Capacity. For unscheduled or whole body injuries to the head, neck, back, and hip prior to July 1, 2017, the primary analysis concerns the negative effect on a worker’s potential loss of earning capacity by considering the following factors:
- Training and Credentials;
- Loss of Actual Earnings;
- Permanent Functional Impairment from Injury; and
- Work restrictions as a Result of Injury.
The analysis relating to age of employee differs for work-related injuries that occur on or after July 1, 2017. Specifically, the employee’s loss of earning capacity now considers the number of years into the future it was reasonably anticipated that the employee would work at the time of the injury.
Additionally, the analysis of loss of actual earnings was altered by the amendments effective July 1, 2017. Traditionally, an injured worker could still receive industrial disability benefits even with an increase in actual earnings. The Iowa legislature amended this law so that if an employee returns to work or is offered work for which the employee earned or would earn the same or higher earnings, then the employee is only entitled to compensation based upon the employee’s permanent functional impairment rating . However, if an injured worker receives an award or settlement based solely on permanent functional impairment rating, and the employee is subsequently terminated by the employer, the injured worker can petition to reopen the claim to have his injury reassessed and compensated under the loss of earning capacity analysis.
- Shoulder Injuries. Under the former Iowa Workers’ Compensation laws, employees who have suffered a shoulder injury qualified for whole body injury status. The new amendments change shoulder injuries from a whole body injury to a scheduled member injury. Consequently, the injured worker’s benefits will now be predicated on the percentage of functional impairment to the shoulder as opposed to industrial disability and loss of earning capacity. After determining the functional impairment rating of the shoulder, the injured worker is only entitled to receive a maximum of 400 weeks of permanent partial disability benefits. For example, if the worker suffers a 50% impairment rating to the shoulder, the injured employee will receive 50% of 400 weeks, or 200 weeks of permanent partial disability benefits.
- New Vocational Training and Education Program for Workers with Permanent Shoulder Injuries. If an employee sustains a permanent injury to the shoulder on or after July 1, 2017, the injured employee may be considered a candidate for the new career vocational training and education program. In order to qualify as a candidate for the program, the permanent shoulder injury must negatively impact the earning capacity of the injured worker. The Iowa Department of Workforce Development then evaluates the injured worker to determine whether or not the injured worker would benefit from the vocational training and education program. The employer is responsible for providing financial assistance up to $15,000.00 on behalf of the injured employee for payment of tuition, fees, and supplies.
- Injuries to Scheduled Members. Eyes, arms, hands, fingers, legs, feet, toes, and hearing are considered scheduled members for purposes of Iowa Workers’ Compensation. The most important factor in evaluating the extent of an injury to a scheduled body part has been an impairment rating pursuant to the AMA Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment. However, Iowa law has permitted awards above the impairment ratings based on testimony of lay witnesses such as the injured worker and family members of the injured worker.
The new amendments effective July 1, 2017, now prohibit the consideration of any lay witness testimony as a factor in the determination of the impairment rating. Moreover, the extent of loss or percentage of impairment to a scheduled member can only be determined by the AMA Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment.
- Preexisting Disability. This amendment effective July 1, 2017, relieves employers from any liability with respect to an injured employee’s preexisting disability that arose out of and in the course of employment from a prior injury to the extent that the injured employee had already received compensation for the pre-existing disability.
- Pursuant to Iowa Workers’ Compensation statutes prior to July 1, 2017, injured workers had the option of unilaterally requesting an award for a single lump sum payment equal to the present value of several weeks of workers’ compensation benefits spread out over a significant time period. In order to qualify for a commutation, the injured worker only had to demonstrate that he or she was financially responsible.
The new amendments effective July 1, 2017, now mandate that both the employer and insurance company must agree with and consent to the injured worker’s request for commutation.
- Examination of Injured Worker and Forfeiture of Benefits. Traditionally, employers have the right to require injured workers to present for an examination by a physician at a reasonable time and place and as often as reasonably requested. The employee’s right to receive weekly benefits was suspended if the employee refused to present to the examination requested by the employer. However, once the employee complied with attending the examination, the employee was entitled to the suspended back benefits.
The new amendments effective July 1, 2017, now express that an employee forfeits the right to receive weekly benefits if the employee refuses to attend a medical examination requested by the employer/insurance company.
- Interest on Unpaid Benefits. The new amendments to the Iowa Workers’ Compensation laws decreased the interest rate on unpaid benefits from 10% per annum to the annual rate for one-year treasury plus 2 % per annum.
- Credits for Employer Excess Payments. Traditionally, Iowa law has made it very difficult for employers to receive a credit for any inadvertent excess payments to the injured worker. With the new amendments effective July 1, 2017, an employer will now have an easier time obtaining a credit for any overpayment. Said credit can apply to either the current injury to the employee or a future injury to the employee.
- Jurisdiction for Injuries Occurring Outside the State of Iowa. For work-related injuries that occurred prior to July 1, 2017, an injured employee who resides in Iowa but works out-of-state can still utilize the Iowa Workers’ Compensation benefits if the employer has a place of business in Iowa. Conversely, if the Iowa resident/out-of-state worker sustains an injury on or after July 1, 2017, the injured worker must regularly work at the employer’s place of business in Iowa to qualify for benefits under Iowa workers’ compensation laws.
If you or someone you know has been injured at work and you would like to discuss your case with an attorney, please contact Walt Thomas Telpner Peterson Law Firm, LLP today at 712-309-3738