By: Attorneys Jennifer Clendenin, Nick Pellegrin and Andrew Tice
Iowa has recently enacted new workers' compensation laws that will significantly change the responsibilities of employers and their carriers. These changes apply to injuries occurring on or after July 1, 2017. This alert addresses several of the most significant changes, but employers must recognize the new changes are broad and sweeping such that many (or even most) aspects of handling workers' compensation claims will be impacted. Iowa's employers will need to work with their carriers, administrators, and counsel to get up-to-speed on these changes.
There are numerous changes impacting the investigation and administration of workers' compensation claims - such as conversion of the shoulder from an industrial disability claim to a scheduled member injury, changing the assessment of permanent disability awards (specifically for workers returning to their prior positions at their prior earning), and instituting a new career vocational training and education program through area community colleges. These changes, and others, will require that employers and their workers' compensation administrators quickly obtain a working knowledge of these new laws to administer new claims while still administering injuries that occurred before July 1, 2017 under Iowa's prior workers' compensations laws.
Shoulder is Now a Scheduled Member Injury
Before the new laws, shoulder claims were compensated as a body-as-a-whole injury invoking the industrial disability analysis. One big change to the law is that shoulder claims have been converted to a scheduled member injury allowing up to 400 weeks of permanent disability. Like other schedule member claims, any permanent disability award will be based upon functional loss. The remaining body-as-a-whole claims will continue to be assessed based upon a loss of earning capacity, but an employer's offer of work (or the employee's return to work) with the same or greater salary, wages, or earnings will change the assessment from loss of earning capacity to functional impairment.
Stronger Intoxication Defense
Iowa law has now given strength to the intoxication defense (Iowa Code 85.16(2)). Previously, employers faced an almost insurmountable burden to prove an injury was caused by intoxication. Now, Iowa law flips the burden when there are positive contemporaneous drug test results by presuming an employee was intoxicated and the intoxication was a predominant factor causing the injury. When established, the employee now has the burden of overcoming this presumption. In order to benefit from this newly strengthened defense, employers are going to want to review their employment policies and testing protocols while ensuring that timely testing is obtained and considered when faced with a claim.
Refusal of Suitable Work Requirements for Employers and Employees
Iowa employers will also stand to benefit from the "refusal of suitable work" defense (Iowa Code 85.33(3)) provided they comply with new written notice requirements. Employers are now required to communicate offers of temporary work in writing with details of lodging, meals, and transportation while also advising the employee of their responsibility for a written response. When done correctly, employees must then provide written refusals or be precluded from raising a "suitability" defense. While this change imposes a new burden on employers, if done correctly, employers will now benefit from a stronger defense when employees refuse work offered to them. On the other hand, employers mishandling the offer process risk losing a valuable defense.
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