Republicans in the Iowa House have voted to alter the system that governs how employers compensate workers who are injured on the job.
Bill backers say the system has become a bonanza for some of the attorneys who file lawsuits for injured workers and that’s driving up costs for businesses. Representative Gary Carlson, a Republican from Muscatine, said that is a distortion of the system’s original intent.
“The system was established so employees would have a certain and easy process to follow in case of a work injury,” Carlson said. “It was established to specifically stay out of the courtroom, to avoid all of the complications, legal fees and litigation.”
Representative Peter Cownie, a Republican from West Des Moines, said there’s other abuse in the system that needs to be fixed, too.
“Right now, you are able to collect unemployment insurance while you’re on workers compensation,” Cownie said. “When you’re on workers compensation, you’re being compensation for being injured at work and you can’t work. If you’re on unemployment, you’re supposed to be looking for a job.”
This bill as originally written, however, went too far for some Republicans and the bill’s scope was reduced during House debate. The legislation would no longer cut off workers comp benefits when someone reaches the age of 67, plus significant changes in the way benefits are calculated for shoulder injuries were abandoned. Carlson also touted the addition of a proposal that would give some workers who suffer a serious shoulder injury the chance to get tuition assistance for community college.
“They are tremendous at working with non-traditional students,” he said, “with working with students who perhaps have been away from school for a period of time and helping them learn and obtain certification or degree programs.”
Critics say the bill still would dramatically change the way benefits are calculated. Representative Todd Pritchard, a Democrat from Charles City, called the bill immoral.
“This bill is not a workers compensation bill. This bill is a workers deprivation bill,” Pritchard said. “It’s a fraud. It’s mean and it’s cruel.”
Representative Bruce Hunter, a Democrat from Des Moines, said the proposal, ultimately, would shift the cost of caring for injured workers from businesses to the taxpayers.
“This is the bill that takes those workers and shoves them aside and says: ‘You’re just another piece of equipment and when you break down, we’ll get rid of you,'” Hunter said.
Representative Wes Breckenridge, a Democrat from Newton, said the bill will “hurt” workers, especially those in physically-demanding jobs.
“There’s several factors in this bill that really worry me,” Breckenridge said. “What are we telling our Iowa workers? Are we telling them we don’t care? When I look at this bill, that’s what I think.”
Representative Chris Hall, a Democrat from Sioux City, argued that there is no workers comp crisis in Iowa.
“Three of the past four years workers comp premiums have declined according to our own insurance division. That includes a 4.7 percent decline last year,” Hall said. “Costs are not rising.”
Representative Gary Worthan, a Republican from Storm Lake who runs a trucking company, said critics like Hall were “picking and choosing” data.
“My premiums are $991 a month for one and a half people,” Worthan said. “…If would move my operation 80 miles straight west…to Jefferson, South Dakota, my rates would be $579 a month, a $412 difference.”
One Republican, Representative Rob Taylor of West Des Moines, voted against the bill. The other “no” votes came from Democrats.
The bill now goes to the Republican-led Iowa Senate. Governor Branstad has indicated he’s open to changes that would address recent court rulings on workers comp cases and repeal some recent regulations.