Changes to Iowa Workers’ Compensation Laws – How Will They Affect You?

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Posted by Emily Anderson

Recently, members of the Iowa legislature voted in major changes to Iowa workers’ compensation laws. Unfortunately, these changes do not benefit injured workers—they benefit employers and insurance companies.

Some of the changes to Iowa workers’ compensation laws create gray areas on how the law will be applied. The courts and Iowa workers’ compensation attorneys will have to sort those legal issues out, which will likely take several years. In the meantime, injured workers will be navigating a new system that is lopsided in favor of employers and insurance companies.

Who Will Be Affected By the Changes to the Iowa Work Comp System?

Before we get to some of the changes, first – a word about who these changes affect. The legislation went into effect on July 1, 2017. That means injuries before July 1, 2017 will be governed by the old laws. On the other hand, injuries that happened after July 1, 2017 will be governed by the new laws. There are a few changes that will impact workers who were hurt even before July 1, 2017.

For cumulative trauma injuries – injuries that come on over time – the “date of injury” can be a moving target. You should talk to an Iowa workers’ compensation attorney to determine the proper “date of injury” that applies to your claim.  How much compensation you receive may vary greatly depending on whether your claim is governed by the old or new law. That is why your date of injury is important.

Now to the major changes:

Workers’ Compensation Benefits For Shoulder Injuries Under the New Iowa Workers’ Comp Laws

Shoulder injuries:

If you suffered a shoulder injury after July 1, 2017, the amount of permanent disability benefits you are entitled to has been reduced drastically. To understand this, you have to know a bit more about how different work injuries are compensated in Iowa. Where on your body you are injured impacts your compensation greatly. Your right to medical benefits and temporary benefits are not impacted by the location of your injury—but the amount of your permanent disability benefits are.

There are two categories of injuries in Iowa – scheduled injuries and “body as a whole” injuries. Scheduled injuries are injuries to limbs and the eyes. Each body part is assigned a maximum amount of weeks a worker can receive in permanent disability benefits for an injury to that “scheduled member.”

Scheduled Member Injuries in Iowa

After an injured worker is released from the doctor, a doctor will give the worker an “impairment rating.” The rating comes in the form of a percentage, and is supposed to reflect the level of permanent physical impairment caused by your work injury. In scheduled injury cases, that rating, or percentage, dictates how much permanent disability benefits an injured worker receives.

For example, Iowa workers’ compensation law says that an arm is worth a maximum of 250 weeks of permanent disability benefits. If an injured workers’ arm is cut off, he gets the whole 250 weeks. If the arm is injured but not cut off, he receives a percentage of 250 weeks. So if the doctor assigns a 10% impairment rating, the injured worker is entitled to 25 weeks of permanent disability benefits.

This is true regardless of how the injury impacts the workers’ ability to work going forward. Because the impairment rating, and not an injured worker’s loss of earning capacity, dictates how much is owed for a “scheduled injury,” this law can produce harsh results in some cases.

Body as a Whole Work Injuries in Iowa

A “body as a whole” injury is an injury to any body part that is not on the schedule. Typically this is an injury to your neck, back, spine, shoulders, hips, head, or a mental health disease.  These injuries are worth either a percentage of 500 weeks, or if you cannot return to work, then lifetime weekly benefits.

If you have a “body as a whole” injury, how much you receive in permanent disability benefits depends on how your injury has affected your ability to earn. The physical impairment rating is only one piece of the puzzle in determining how much you are owed.

For example, if you hurt your back and receive a 10% physical impairment rating, but you have lifting restrictions that make it so you cannot go back to your old job, you are not limited to the 10% (50 weeks) of permanent disability benefits. Instead, you are likely entitled to something more because your ability to work has been affected.

How These Changes Affect Iowans with Work-Related Shoulder Injuries

Now that you have that background – let’s talk about the how the changes to Iowa’s workers’ compensation laws will apply to work-related shoulder injuries. Shoulder injuries used to be “body as a whole” injuries, where you would be compensated on the basis of loss of earning capacity.

With the change in Iowa workers’ compensation law, shoulder injuries are now scheduled injuries. The shoulder is worth a maximum of 400 weeks of benefits. How many weeks an injured worker receives for a shoulder injury is now solely dependent on the impairment rating. So if the doctor assigns your shoulder a 10% physical impairment rating, you will receive 40 weeks of benefits – even if you cannot go back to work.

Again, this is a very harsh result, because shoulder injuries quite often are career-ending, or at least career-changing, work injuries.

Let me give you a real life example of how harmful the changes to Iowa workers’ compensation laws are. I represented an injured worker who had been as a nurse her whole life. Due to a work injury, she had to have her shoulder replaced. As a result, her doctor gave her serious physical restrictions, including that she could not lift over 5 pounds.

The employer fired her. She applied for over 100 jobs after her injury and was not able to find work. The judge found that the work injury made it so she could not work anymore, entitling her to receive a weekly workers’ compensation benefit check for the rest of her life to help replace her lost wages. With the new law in place, that same nurse would receive 100 weeks of permanent disability benefits—less than two years, instead of a weekly check for the rest of her life.

Depending on where you were hurt in your shoulder, your injury may still fall under the “body as a whole” category. It’s very important to talk to an experienced Iowa workers’ compensation attorney if you have a shoulder injury, and not just take the insurance company’s word for it that you have a scheduled injury.

Iowa Law Changes When Returning to Work After a Work Injury

If you return to work or your employer offers you a job at the same wage, even if you cannot actually perform the work offered, the amount of your permanent disability benefits is limited by the law to your physical impairment rating. This is true even if you have a “body as whole” injury.

This change to Iowa workers’ compensation law essentially transforms all injuries into scheduled injuries if your employer offers you work at the same wage.

If the employer offers you a job, but then later terminates you, you can re-open your workers’ compensation claim and seek additional benefits. This provision in the law will likely become very important for injured workers going forward.

Let me give you a couple real-life examples of how this change is harmful:

We represented an injured worker with a serious back injury. His employer brought him back to work, but because of his permanent physical restrictions, he couldn’t go back to his old job. So his employer gave him tasks like checking the power outlets in the plant to make sure they worked, making sure the fire extinguishers were not expired, and even sitting in the break room. This was his job, day in and day out.

As you can imagine, this was harmful to the worker’s mental health. He developed major depression. The workers’ compensation judge recognized that this job was not a real job and awarded the injured worker 300 weeks of benefits. Under the new law, the judge would not have had that option unless the injured worker had been fired. The injured worker would have been limited to 55 weeks of permanent disability benefits—the equivalent of his physical impairment rating and a little over one year of benefits.

Another example is of an injured worker who had done HVAC work his whole life. He suffered a shoulder injury that no longer allowed him to do overhead work. The employer could only offer overhead work for him to do.

Under the changes to the Iowa work comp system, because the employer offered him a job, he would have been limited to 50 weeks of permanent disability benefits. The judge recognized he was hurt more than that, and awarded him 250 weeks of benefits.

Other Changes to Iowa Workers’ Compensation Law

There are multiple other changes to the law. These include:

  • A new hurdle to receiving benefits if the employer claims you were intoxicated;
  • Decreased interest owed on benefits not paid on time;
  • A gap between when the doctor releases you from care and when you start receiving permanent disability benefits;
  • A loss of certain benefits if you don’t comply with an insurance company’s lawful request to see one of their doctors;
  • You can no longer receive all of your future benefits in a lump sum. This change applies to all injured workers, regardless of when you were hurt.

What Has Not Changed About Iowa Workers’ Compensation Law?

Types of Workers’ Compensation Benefits

The four basic types of workers’ benefits still exist. They are:

  1. Medical benefits to cover medical expenses related to your work injury. This includes mileage to and from your appointments. The employer still gets to choose your doctors under the new law.
  2. Temporary disability benefits, which are designed to help replace your wages when you are still healing from your work injury and a doctor has restricted you from working completely, OR has placed you on a restriction that work cannot accommodate, OR has restricted you from doing parts of your job that causes a partial reduction in your earnings.
  3. Permanent disability benefits, which are paid when you have a permanent work injury. The analysis that is applied to how many weeks of permanent disability benefits you receive is impacted by what body part is injured. For injured workers who suffer a scheduled injury – the amount of permanent benefits you can receive has not changed. For injured workers who suffer a “body as a whole” injuries – while these benefits still exist, how much you can receive in permanent disability benefits has potentially changed drastically under the new law.
  4. Death benefits, which are benefits that a surviving spouse or child receives when their spouse or parent dies on the job.

There are other parts of workers’ compensation law that has not changed.

  • Rate: The amount you are paid each week, called your workers’ compensation rate, has not changed.
  • Scheduled injuries: injuries to limbs and eyes are compensated the same. However, the shoulder is now a scheduled injury.
  • Second injury fund benefits: when you have a work injury to a limb or eye, and have had an injury in the past to a different limb or an eye, you can still seek second injury fund benefits.

If you have been injured at work, now more than ever it is important to call an experienced Iowa workers’ compensation attorney. Our work comp lawyers have spent hours interpreting the new laws. There are gray areas on how some of these laws are going to be applied, and you will want an experienced workers’ compensation attorney on your side to help you through these changes. If you have questions about a work-related injury and the changes to Iowa’s workers’ compensation laws, call us today at 1-319-774-1542 for a free consultation.

RSH Legal. Fighting for Fairness for Iowa’s injured workers.

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