Iowa Supreme Court Prohibits Trucking Companys From Offering A Light Duty Work Program From A Centralized Location
March 16, 2012 by Karen M. Keeler
The Iowa Supreme Court was recently asked to determine if an over the road trucking company’s offer of rehabilitation/light duty work program to employees injured on the job from a centralized location would excuse the employer from paying temporary total disability benefits. Despite a strong dissent, the Court answered this question in the negative.
In Tim Neal v. Annett Holdings, Inc., Tim Neal, an employee of Annett Holdings, Inc., was injured in the course and scope of his employment as an over the road truck driver. Due to this injury Neal’s doctor imposed work restrictions on Neal including the amount of weight Neal could lift. Neal’s employer offered him light duty work in Des Moines, Iowa, which was 387 miles from Grayville, Illinois where Neal resided with his wife and three children. Neal’s employer offered to provide him with a hotel room while he worked in Des Moines and would cover the transportation cost to allow Neal to return to Grayville every other weekend. In addition, travel time home every other weekend would not be counted as weekend time. If Neal chose to return home every weekend he was able to do so at his own expense. Neal testified that before his injury he was able to return home every weekend. Neal declined to perform light duty work in Des Moines, and as a result his employer suspended workers’ compensation benefits.
An arbitration hearing was held and the deputy commissioner concluded that the employer had properly suspended benefits because Neal had refused suitable work as defined by Iowa Code § 85.33(3). On appeal, the arbitration decision was reversed and it was found that the employer had not offered suitable employment because "a worker should not be required to uproot and move to a different location…being away from the support of your wife and family, especially while recovering from a serious work injury is not an insignificant matter." Tim Neal v. Annett Holdings, Inc., No. 10-2117, p. 18 (internal citations omitted). This decision was upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court.
The Iowa Supreme Court held that the locality of the offered employment may be considered when determining if the employer had offered "suitable employment" as defined by Iowa Code §85.33(3). The Court held that even though the phrase "consistent with the employee’s disability" was included in this Iowa Statute this phrase did not provide a definition for "suitable work." Despite the fact that Neal was an over-the-road truck driver who was often required to spend extended periods of time away from home, the Court concluded that the distance of 387 miles between Neal’s residence and the proffered work was unreasonable and therefore the employer had not offered suitable work. This was an issue of first impression for the Iowa Supreme Court, and as such the Court looked to other jurisdictions, Iowa unemployment decisions, and the Restatement of Agency to determine if locality of the offered job should be considered to determine if an employee had been offered "suitable work."
A strong dissent argued that the employer had offered suitable work and that Neal had unreasonably declined this work. Justice Mansfield explains in the dissenting opinion, "Iowa has many trucking companies and truckers – they are a vital part of our economy and our workforce. At the same time, the workforce of those companies may be scattered in different locales…Without addressing the specific circumstances of this case, the commissioner simply decided that an employee who is rehabilitating from a workplace injury should not be expected to spend an increased amount of time away from home, even on a temporary basis. This approach makes it difficult to have a centralized program. It also disregards the specific facts of this case, where the employee was an over-the-road trucker whose work already took him overnight away from home, except on weekends." Annett Holdings, Inc., No. 10-2117, p. 28 (J. Mansfield, dissenting).
The dissent argued that while geographic proximity is a factor to be considered when determining if work is suitable for purposes of Iowa Code §85.33(3), it is not the same kind of factor to be considered in every employment context. Id. at 29.
The consequences of this recent holding on Iowa Trucking Companies offering light duty work from a central location is that even if the employer pays for travel costs, an employee may reject this light duty employment while having no effect on the collection of workers’ compensation benefits if this employment location requires extended overnight stays. This could potentially have a detrimental effect on rehabilitation programs funded by the employer, such as the one disscussed in this case.
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