Work Comp Benefits and Lay Offs Under Iowa Law

Merry Christmas everyone. This is our holiday card from last year. My wife took it on her cell phone while we were putting up decorations.
Dirk & Dogs Christmas #1.jpg
Moose is on my right side, and Bub is on my left side. They are allegedly Jack Russell-Rat Terrier mixes, but they must have something else in them because they are a little bigger than either a Jack Russell Terrier or a Rat Terrier. They are siblings, and they have spent every day of their lives together. The only disagreements they ever have relate to chew toys. We always get two of each toy, but somehow they usually decide that one is better, and they both want that one.

You can see a picture of Bub illustrating a blog post about workers’ compensation and alcohol here. You can see another picture of Bub and Moose together featured in a personal injury blog post about dog bites here.

Today I am going to talk about the recent case of McCarthy v. Jeld-Wen, Inc. that the Iowa Court of Appeals issued on December 18, 2013. The case deals with a number of issues, but I am going to concentrate on an injured employee’s right to receive workers’ compensation benefits if they are laid off from their job. Under Iowa law if a worker is injured they are entitled to receive what is called healing period benefits during their recovery until the earliest one of the following events occurs:

1. The employee returns to work;
2. It is not anticipated that there will be further significant medical improvement from the injury. (Work comp lawyers usually talk about this event as maximum medical improvement or MMI); or
3. The employee is medically capable of returning to employment which is substantially similar to that which the employee had at the time of the injury.

In the McCarthy case the worker was a longtime employee for Jeld-Wen who had started working for the company in 1978. In 2008 the worker was exposed to isocyanates. As a result of this chemical exposure he suffered chronic coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue.

On July 30, 2009 Jeld-Wen laid off the two least productive employees in the plant. Mr. McCarthy had previously always been very productive and had always received good reviews. However, his performance had suffered since his injury, and he was one of the two workers who were laid off.

The work comp judge determined that Mr. McCarthy reached maximum medical improvement on September 29, 2010.

One of the issues in the case then became whether Mr. McCarthy was entitled to receive healing period benefits for the time period between his July 30, 2009 lay off and the point where he reached maximum medical improvement on September 29, 2010.

The Defendants offered the opinion of a highly qualified expert that following Mr. McCarthy’s termination he would have been able to work at any job as long as he was not exposed to certain chemicals. Based on this opinion, the Defendants argued that Mr. McCarthy could return to employment which was “substantially similar” to his prior employment, and therefore, he was not entitled to any healing period benefits for the 14 months between his termination and the time when he reached maximum medical improvement.

Mr. McCarthy’s lawyer countered with the opinions of other experts and Mr. McCarthy’s own testimony that his respiratory problems would have prevented him from performing “substantially similar” employment during those disputed 14 months.

The work comp judge at the trial level found Mr. McCarthy’s arguments and evidence more persuasive, and ruled that Mr. McCarthy was entitled to receive healing period benefits during the disputed 14 months.

Even more importantly, on the first stage of appeal to the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner, the Commissioner also agreed that Mr. McCarthy was not capable of returning to “substantially similar employment” during the 14 months between his termination and when he reached maximum medical improvement.

Under Iowa law the decisions of the Workers’ Compensation Commissioner on these types of factual disputes will generally be binding during all of the further appeal levels to the District Court, the Court of Appeals, and the Iowa Supreme Court. See here for my blog post of February 28, 2013 that gives an overview of the trial and appeal process in Iowa Workers’ Compensation cases and discusses this crucial standard of review in more detail.

Therefore, the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision that Mr. McCarthy was entitled to receive healing period benefits during the disputed 14 months.

Here are several other places with more information on a worker’s right to receive healing period benefits:

Here is the section of our website that gives an overview on Iowa Workers’ Compensation law and explains an injured worker’s right to receive healing period benefits while they are recovering; and the right to receive permanent partial disability benefits once they have reached maximum medical improvement.

Here is my June 19, 2013 blog post that talks about the law on when an injured worker is entitled to receive benefits if they are terminated from their job for alleged misconduct.

Here is my October 31, 2013 blog post that talks about the timing of when healing period benefits are due, and the dividing line between the end of healing period benefits and the start of permanent partial disability benefits.

If you are laid off or terminated after a work injury you should be sure to talk to an experienced Iowa work comp attorney to make sure your rights are protected.