Businesses push relief from Iowa workers' comp costs

Opponents say proposal puts more burdens on taxpayers

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DES MOINES — Workers urged legislators Tuesday to keep intact a decades-old law that has protected injured workers while employers argued the state needs to rebalance a lawyer-driven system that’s hurting the competitiveness of Iowa businesses.

More than two dozens witnesses showed up at a Statehouse hearing to discuss the pros and cons of pending legislation. Proponents said changes are badly needed, but critics worried those changes in the workers’ compensation law would shift costs to taxpayers.

Steve Stouffer of Tyson Fresh Meats told House members present for the evening meeting that Iowa’s workers’ comp system has become “a litigious lottery” that swung from a no-fault configuration addressing workplace injuries to one where costs are tilted against employers who see better arrangements in other states.

That view was contrasted by Shelly Garrison of the United Workers Union, who called it “just shameful” that the GOP-led Legislature first gutted the state’s collective bargaining law for public employees and now was setting its sights on reducing insurance benefits for employees injured on the job.

“We’re talking about hardworking men and women,” Garrison said.

Labor representatives insisted Iowa’s costs for work injury claims remain low and steady, even with rising health care costs. Business groups countered that workers’ claims in Iowa have spiraled under a system unfairly skewed toward the workers.

“We do give a darn about our employees,” said Paul Gregory of Fisher-Emerson, an engineering and technology company based in Marshalltown. But he said changes are needed so Iowa doesn’t drive away businesses or thwart expansions.

House File 518 would end injured worker benefits at age 67; reduce benefits for injuries tied to pre-existing conditions; limit legal fees for lawyers; and minimize late fees for employers who fail to pay benefits on time. Employers also would be allowed to deny benefits if an injured worker tests positive for alcohol or drugs.

Union officials say the bill would cut benefits for common workplace injuries; eliminate benefits based on an employee’s loss of earning power in some cases; and discriminate against older workers.

Proponents say a review is appropriate to fix abuses that may have developed over time.

“Whether it is your intent or not, we still believe that this bill discriminates against older workers by requiring an injured employee's age to be used to reduce available benefits,” said Charles Wishman, secretary/treasurer of the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO.

“If the intent is to move these workers to a social safety net program, it is unacceptable,” he told legislators. “If that is not the intent, there needs to be more thought given to this proposal. Workplace safety is the employer’s responsibility, and an injury on the job is not the taxpayer’s responsibility.”

In written comments, Jean Dickson of a Davenport law firm that represents employers said she has seen “first hand the deterioration of confidence in the system and changes are necessary and essential.”

Dickson cited examples where employers faced substantial disability awards even though employees returned to full employment, saying “an adjustment is needed to establish a more fair, balanced approach.”

l Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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