Throughout this year’s Iowa legislative session, Republicans have introduced and passed a myriad of bills restricting workers’ rights and protections, as well as finding new ways to cut Iowans’ wages. This week the focus is on Republicans’ workers compensation proposal, which would gut most of the ways Iowans can get reimbursed for legitimate injuries sustained at the workplace.
But this time the Republicans may have gone too far, and rumors of division in their ranks have percolated up at the Statehouse. The workers compensation bill was expected to be brought up in the House as early as late last week, but the House adjourned early yesterday with still no action. Many Statehouse watchers believe Republicans haven’t been able to get their members lined up on all the provisions of the far-reaching legislation.
If passed, House File 518 would decimate the ability of workers who are injured on the job to receive compensation from their employers. The most impactful part of the bill has to do with the “predominant factor” of a workplace injury. The new language would force employees to prove that their injury wasn’t in part due to any non-work health condition they currently have. Essentially, it amplifies how preexisting conditions can be a barrier to making claims. Even if your injury was caused by your job, the employer can find ways to deny your claim if you had a preexisting medical issue – or if you are old or overweight.
That alone would severely limit workers’ rights and result in thousands of Iowans’ lives being destroyed by workplace injuries – even those whose careers are ended by it – that they can get no compensation to help offset medical bills.
It could also jam up the reporting system at some jobs. Construction workers who suffer back injuries from the job often don’t discover the full extent of the injury until days or weeks after the incident. Many go home each day with various aches and pains, but oftentimes it subsides – only later when the pain continues to persist do they go to a doctor. But now if they file a claim with their employer about an injury that may have been caused weeks earlier, they could get denied if the employer is able to cast it as a preexisting condition. So workers may now report every single back ache out of fear that it might develop into something worse.
The “predominant factor” section is likely what business interests like ABI and Tyson Foods are most interested in seeing pass. But rumors at the Statehouse suggest there’s a group of Republican legislators who have drafted an amendment to take out the “predominant factor” language, but they haven’t filed it yet.
The House bill’s floor manager, Gary Carlson, has already introduced an amendment that moderates other sections of the bill some.
One of the biggest outcries over the original bill is its age cut-off. Anyone over age 67 would not be able to collect benefits if they were permanently injured on the job. Republicans would have essentially imposed a retirement age on Iowans – work at a job after that and any injury you sustain wouldn’t be covered, likely financially ruining your retirement. Carlson’s amendment gets rid of that.
Carlson also looks to moderate some of the language on the controversial shoulder section of the bill. Under this legislation, benefits for shoulder injuries would be severely limited. That’s one of the most common, potentially career-ending injuries that happens in meatpacking plants. Tyson Foods would have been able to pay its employees who get injured in their factories much less. It’s estimated those employees would receive at least half the current benefits from shoulder injuries. Carlson’s amendment compromises on this front somewhat, but still makes claims more difficult for employees.
Still, nothing in Carlson’s amendment touches the “predominate factor” section, the key measure big business wants so they don’t have to compensate as many of their employees who get hurt. It will even target employees who are overweight – setting up a way in which they get denied their claim even if their weight didn’t cause their injury.
Throughout the debate, Republicans have claimed the changes are necessary for a workers compensation system that is out of control and tilted in favor of employees. Yet an extensive Des Moines Register investigation published yesterday showed that no such crisis exists. Compensation has fluctuated in recent years, sometimes rising, sometimes decreasing. And it tracks well with Iowa’s neighboring states.
The bill may yet come to the floor of the House today, but whether there’s additional changes is yet to be seen. Overall, it provides one more bit of political danger for Republicans heading into 2018. Other pieces of legislation have gone after workers’ wages, rights and benefits. This one specifically goes after working Iowans who have suffered injuries – sometimes terrible ones – and keeps them from getting the funds they need to recover and pay their medical bills. It would be difficult to come up with a more cruel punishment for the working class of Iowa, just so that large corporations can save a few bucks.
by Pat Rynard