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Further Defining of “Suitable Work” in Iowa Code 85.33(3) for Temporary Partially Disabled Workers

Iowa Code Section 85.33(3) directs that if an employee is temporarily or partially disabled and the employer offers him suitable work consistent with the employee’s disability, the employee must accept the work to receive temporary work comp benefits.  If the employee refuses to accept the work, the employee will no longer receive benefits during the period of refusal.    
 The Iowa Supreme Court recently entered its opinion in the case of Neal v. Annett Holdings, Inc., 814 N.W.2d 512 (Iowa 2012), reh’g denied (May 2, 2012) (hereinafter Neal).  Neal was an over-the-road truck driver that sustained a shoulder injury while working.  Due to this injury, Neal was medically placed on light-duty work restrictions.  Attempting to accommodate Neal, his employer offered a light-duty position in Des Moines, Iowa.  However, Neal’s residence was in Grayville, Illinois, approximately 387 miles from Des Moines.  The employer also offered to pay lodging while Neal worked in Des Moines and transportation costs in returning home every other weekend.  Ultimately, Neal declined to accept the proffered employment, and his workers’ compensation benefits were suspended. 
 Before Neal, the Iowa Supreme court had remained silent as to an interpretation of the language within Iowa Code Section 85.33(3), specifically “suitable work”.  However, in Neal, the Iowa Supreme Court was faced with the issue of determining whether geographic location, specifically the distance from Neal’s residence to the proffered employment, could be considered a factor, among others, in determining whether the work was suitable.
 The Court made the determination that geographic location of the proffered work is a valid factor to consider in determining whether the work is suitable.  Ultimately, the Court held the Commissioner committed no legal error in determining the proffered work was not suitable due to the substantial evidence supporting it.  The specific factors providing support were: the distance between Neal’s residence and the proffered work was 387 miles; the result of the proffered work would have led to a reduction in the amount of time spent at home; and there was a lack of evidence to any preexisting employment agreements regarding relocation.  Although Neal was an over-the-road trucker, he still managed to see his family every weekend and occasionally during the week.  The proffered work would have cut that time in half.
 With the finding of Neal, the Court has provided further structure for employers to use when making the determination of whether an offer of suitable work is “suitable” to the point of allowing a suspension of benefits if it is not accepted.  Employers with remote employee issues like the employer in Neal should re-examine their light duty policies for workers’ compensation to ensure that they are in fact offering “suitable work”.     

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