Iowa GOP Representatives Peter Cownie and Gary Carlson engineered passage of a drastic change to Iowa’s workers’ compensation law in 2017. Their major revisions make it much more difficult for injured workers to obtain benefits and severely restricts the total amount of benefits injured workers can receive.
Progress Iowa, an Iowa worker advocacy group, has reserved “You’re out of luck” billboards exposing the two Republican representatives for their 2017 amendments to the Iowa worker compensation law. Their amendments stripped injured workers of many of their historically established benefits. Peter Cownie of West Des Moines and Gary Carlson of Muscatine worked together to ram through this anti-worker legislation. The billboards were erected last week in each of their districts to call out their anti-worker legislation and hold them accountable to the public.
Iowa Policy Project (IPP) prepared a comprehensive history of the original statute and analyzed the changes the Republicans’ 2017 amendments will make for injured workers. Historically, Iowa’s worker compensation statute has worked effectively for over a century with little change. The basis for Iowa workers’ 1913 compensation law mirrored similar laws established by other states over 100 years ago.
It was originally written together in a compromise by both labor and management. The original 1913 Iowa statute was supported by both the Iowa Manufacturers’ Association and the State Federation of Labor. In addition, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the distribution of cost in an early decision (1927) upholding the law.
IPP summarized the general principles underlying workers’ compensation laws: “Workers who are injured on the job are entitled to compensation for their injuries, without regard to fault. Compensation includes medical costs, lost-time and monetary compensation for permanent injuries or death. Families of workers who die of job-related injuries or illness are entitled to survivor benefits.”
The Republican amendment to this century old statute will make it much difficult for workers to file claims. It will limit employers’ liability and place limits on attorney fees. In addition, it will reclassify specific injuries that will result in reducing both the amounts and length of benefits.
The GOP legislation closely follows the playbook on worker compensation by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
One of the most common workers’ compensation claims are for shoulder injuries, especially among meat packing workers. Repetitive motion injuries often result in shoulder pain and disabilities.
According to OSHA, “Slaughterhouse and meat processing plant workers have some of the most dangerous jobs. One of the most common injury is musculoskeletal disorders, brought on by thousands of daily repetitive motions.”
Branstad and Reynolds administration have their fingerprints all over the Cownie and Carlson legislation. According to the IPP report:
“When Terry Branstad was returned as governor in 2011 after a 12-year hiatus, one of the first pieces of paper to hit his desk was a long memo from Tyson detailing what it saw as excessive workers’ compensation settlements. Republicans did not completely control the Legislature, so Branstad was unable to deliver the changes sought by Tyson. However, under Iowa law, the Governor can appoint the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner, the head of the state agency that administers the workers’ compensation law.
“Branstad demanded that Commissioner Christopher Godfrey resign, so that he could appoint someone more ‘business friendly’ to replace him. When Godfrey refused, Branstad slashed the pay of the Commissioner to the statutory minimum in an attempt to force his resignation.” (Godfrey sued Branstad and that has yet to come to trial. Iowa taxpayers have spent almost $1 million through September defending Branstad.) In 2017, with a Republican Governor, GOP-controlled Senate and House, Cownie and Carlson finally delivered for meatpackers like Tyson.
Based on the changes made by Cownie and Carlson’s amendments, the Iowa Policy Project predicted significant loss in benefits to typical workers.
“Workers with a shoulder injury could expect to lose about 75 percent of his/her compensation. The change will have the largest impact on the most vulnerable workers. Older workers with less education, fewer skills, learning disabilities, or language issues will be particularly hard hit. Some of these workers will see their compensation reduced by more than 90 percent. lose an average of $72,000, and potentially up to $200,000.”
Cownie, Carlson and the rest of the Republican-controlled legislature must be called out for their devastating attacks on fair and long established labor laws. Thanks to Progress Iowa for financing billboards to alert the public to the Republican assaults on labor rights.
by Rick Smith