To explain when work comp checks are due, I need to start by talking a little about the two general categories of weekly benefits under Iowa law. See here for a longer discussion about these two different kinds of benefits. The short version is that from the time of a work injury until you reach maximum medical improvement the payments are called either temporary total disability benefits or healing period benefits. The purpose of these benefits is to replace the wages that you missed as a result of your work injury. This category of benefits can theoretically last forever as long as your condition continues to improve.
As soon as your medical condition has reached maximum medical improvement then the nature of the payments change from the healing or temporary benefits to what is called permanent partial disability benefits. The purpose of the permanent partial disability benefits is to compensate you for the permanent disability that you will have for the rest of your life as a result of the work injury.
If you are injured on the job in Iowa and are unable to work there is an initial three day waiting period before you become eligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits. For example, if you are injured on December 31, and are able to return to work on January 1, 2, or 3 you are not eligible to receive any workers’ compensation benefits. See Iowa Code Section 85.32. (There is a classification issue that effects this waiting period. If you are going to end up with a permanent disability, then the payments should start immediately, and there should not be a healing period. See Iowa Code Section 85.34(1). However, if it is not clear that you are going to end up with a permanent disability, then the waiting period applies).
Going back to our example, if you are still unable to work on January 4, then workers’ compensation benefits begin to accrue or become payable. The first work comp check should be issued on January 11, and should cover the seven days from January 4 to January 10.
If you are still unable to work on January 15, then a workers’ compensation check should be issued to cover the initial three days your injury kept you off the job from January 1 to January 3.
Your weekly benefit checks should continue as long as you are still healing and cannot do your regular job; and your employer does not provide you with suitable light duty work.
The exact time that the permanent partial disability payments should start is subject to some dispute. Iowa Code Section 85.34(1) provides that healing period benefits continue until the first one of these events occurs:
1. You return to work.
2. It is medically indicated that significant improvement from your injury is not anticipated. This is also known as reaching maximum medical improvement.
3. You are medically capable of returning to employment substantially similar to the employment in which you engaged at the time of your injury. This option generally comes up if you have been terminated or chose to leave your job.
In turn, Iowa Code Section 85.34(2) provides that permanent partial disability payments should start at the end of the payment of healing period benefits.
Here is a common situation in which the two sides frequently argue about the start date for permanent partial disability payments. Assume you were injured at work, and returned to light duty work fairly quickly. However, it was quite some time before you reached maximum medical improvement and it was possible to obtain an impairment rating to help estimate the extent of your permanent disability. The defendants will frequently argue that the start date for permanent partial disability benefits is not until you have reached maximum medical improvement. The argument for you as the injured worker is that the statute says that the employer should begin to pay permanent partial disability benefits as soon as you return to light duty work and the payment of healing period benefits end.
Additionally, the insurance company has an affirmative duty to voluntarily pay you what they consider will be the minimum amount of your permanent partial disability. See Chistensen v. Snap-On Tools Corp., 559 N.W.2d 254 (Iowa 1996); and Davidson v. Bruce, 594 N.W.2d 833 (Iowa App. 1999). See here for my blog entry of July 25, 2013 with a longer discussion about these “good faith” payments.
Finally, if the employer fails to pay either the healing period benefits or the permanent partial disability benefits on a timely basis or in the correct amount, then you are also entitled to interest on the underpayments or late payments at the rate of 10% per year. The Iowa workers’ compensation system follows what is called the United States Rule for interest. This means that to the extent that there are any late payments or low payments, the next payment made applies first to the accrued interest, and the remaining amount of the payment applies to the principal. The calculation of Iowa work comp interest can get fairly complex, but underpayments and late payments of your workers’ comp benefits can result in you being owed a fairly large amount of interest.