- Associated Press - Friday, March 3, 2017

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Legislation making big changes to Iowa’s workers’ compensation system is moving through the Legislature despite arguments that the new rules would penalize employees who work in physically demanding conditions.

Committees in the House and Senate approved the bill Thursday, and it could come up for votes in the full chambers next week.

Opponents have been especially critical of four elements of the bill: Cutting compensation off at age 67 for fully disabled people; minimizing late fees for employers; reducing coverage for shoulder injuries; and decreasing coverage for injuries tied to a pre-existing condition.

Unions have taken the lead in opposing the bill, noting workers such as Doug Collins, a former truck loader for Wonder Bread who won a workers’ comp lawsuit after suffering a knee injury. Because he’d previously injured his knee as a teenager, Collins said he doubts he would have succeeded if he pursued a lawsuit under the proposed rules.

“If this law changes, all you’re basically saying to workers is, ‘You better pray your injury isn’t bad enough to cost you your job,’” the 51-year-old Sioux City resident recently told The Associated Press.

Richard Lesline, a 64-year-old former truck driver from Sioux City, said he received workers’ comp payments after suffering a shoulder injury when a safety handle malfunctioned, leading to multiple surgeries and lingering pain that prevented him for going back to work. Under the proposed new rules, payments for such an injury likely would have been substantially less.

“I can’t believe that they would pass a law where you would get a fraction of what you were worth,” he said. “I’m sure I would have been at my wits end trying to figure out how I was going to survive.”

The legislation is widely supported by business owners who argue the current Iowa’s Workers’ Compensation Act gets exploited, forcing higher benefit costs and lawsuits against employers.

Sen. Bill Dix, the Senate majority leader, said Republicans hope that changing the law will spur more jobs and retain businesses in the state.

“What the legislation is doing is really moving back to the spirit of what the law was intended to do in the first place, and that is to evaluate those injuries in a fair and practical manner that not only addresses the injury of the employee, but also promotes policies where the employee can maintain employment with their employers,” Dix said.

John Stineman, executive director for the Iowa Chamber Alliance, a business lobbying group, said during a subcommittee meeting Wednesday that many Iowa companies struggle with rising benefit costs and legal efforts that target employers.

“The reality is that we have seen great increases, and it needs to be addressed,” he said.

But critics of the legislation said few employees try to game the system and by limiting benefits, the state would protect companies that endanger their workers.

Jason Neifert, a workers’ compensation attorney with the lawyer lobbying group Iowa Association for Justice, agreed.

“There aren’t a significant number of abusers of the system,” Neifert said. “And nothing about the legislation they want to create would help reduce that anyway.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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