One way companies have cut down on workers’ comp costs is by getting injured workers back on the job through light duty. But can a light-duty position be 387 miles away? And can an employee be denied comp benefits if he refuses such an offer?
Tim Neal was an over-the-road flatbed truck driver for TMC Transportation. One day at work, while working to secure a load on his truck, he injured his shoulder.
TMC offered Neal light-duty work in its offices in Des Moines, IA. Neal lived in Grayville, IL, with his wife and three children, 387 miles away.
The company said it would provide Neal transportation costs to allow him to return home every other weekend.
However, while working as a truck driver, Neal was able to return home every weekend and sometimes during the week, too.
Neal declined the light-duty offer, and TMC suspended his workers’ comp benefits.
Iowa law disqualifies an employee from receiving workers’ comp benefits if the employer offers “suitable work” that the employee refuses.
A workers’ comp commissioner concluded that the company failed to offer “suitable work” to Neal because the job was located a large distance from his home. “Being away from the support of your wife and family, especially while recovering from a serious work injury, is not an insignificant matter,” the commissioner wrote. As a result, Neal’s comp benefits were reinstated.
TMC appealed to a district court which reversed the commissioner’s ruling.
The court said for work to be considered suitable, it only had to be “consistent with the employee’s disability.”
Neal took the case to the Iowa Supreme Court.
The court noted that “suitable work” wasn’t defined in Iowa’s workers’ comp law, so it looked at how other states handled similar cases.
Some states’ laws specifically required light-duty work to be located within a reasonable distance of an injured worker’s home. That’s the case in Nevada, Oregon and Michigan.
Other states’ workers’ comp laws don’t require location of the light-duty job to be considered, but they say an employee can refuse an offer if the refusal is “justifiable” or “reasonable.” Courts in Georgia, Delaware and Pennsylvania have ruled that refusal to take a light-duty position is reasonable if it’s located too far from the worker’s home.
The Iowa Supreme Court also noted that in another area of employment law, unemployment compensation, location of a potential job can be considered. Unemployment benefits can be revoked if the recipient refuses suitable work. However, distance of the available work from the individual’s residence can be a reasonable reason for someone to refuse a job offer and continue to receive unemployment benefits.
For those reasons, the Iowa Supreme Court concluded that the commissioner was correct: The work wasn’t suitable because Neal would only be able to be home half as much as he would have been had he been working.
Result: It was OK for Neal to refuse the light-duty position, and he could continue to receive workers’ comp benefits.
(Neal v. Annett Holdings, Supreme Court of Iowa, No. 10-2117, 3/2/12)
What do you think about the court’s ruling? Would it be worth the cost to offer to send Neal home every weekend so the company would avoid a workers’ comp claim? Let us know what you think in the comments below.