Shifting the cost of workplace injuries

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Business and insurance interests are trying to wipe out insurance benefits that cover every working Iowan.

Workers’ compensation is a required employee benefit. It covers medical treatment, lost wages, and compensation to workers injured on the job. At least that’s what it’s supposed to do.

In reality, insurance companies often abuse the system to delay and deny benefits to injured workers whose bills pile up. The lucky ones find a lawyer who can help them get medical care, pay bills, and feed their kids. The unlucky ones are left to borrow money from family, or go on public assistance.

Leandra Haughey just started a new job in 2014, cleaning a Marshalltown meatpacking plant at night after meat-processors left for the day. This was not her dream job, but she was happy to have it. One night a co-worker noticed she was lost, led her to the basement of the large empty plant, beat her, and raped her. (Leandra’s rapist is now in prison, where he belongs.)

Iowa’s workers’ compensation laws required Leandra’s employer to provide prompt treatment for her physical and psychological injuries. Instead, they promptly denied her claim and fired her, but not the rapist. They continued to deny her treatment for 19 months until she hired me.

This is an extreme example, but employers and insurance companies routinely delay and deny these “guaranteed” benefits. A bill (House Study Bill 169) in the Iowa Legislature makes it easier for employers and insurance companies to dispose of you, rather than pay your benefits.

Business and insurance interests are trying to sell this as a “reform” package to roll back court cases that helped workers. That’s false. In 2015, the national news publication ProPublica wrote about the demolition of workers’ compensation: “Over the past decade, states have slashed workers’ compensation benefits, denying injured workers help when they need it most and shifting the costs of workplace accidents to taxpayers.”

This bill arbitrarily cuts off benefits for the most severely disabled workers at age 67. It slashes benefits for common workplace injuries, like shoulder injuries. It gives employers and insurance companies broad new authority to deny claims and delay benefits. And it virtually eliminates coverage for orthopedic injuries to workers who are overweight or over 40.

Iowa is joining the race to the bottom in workers’ compensation. Will businesses save money? Of course. Workers and taxpayers will be picking up the tab from now on.

• Saffin Parrish-Sams is an Iowa attorney who represents workers who were injured on the job. She is a Vice President of the Iowa Association for Justice.

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