BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Area state legislators updated local residents on some specific issues in front of the Iowa government relating to worker benefits and wages.
At the Fort Madison Area Chamber of Commerce’s regular legislative luncheon at The Palms Friday, State Reps. Jerry Kearns (D-Keokuk) and Dave Heaton (R-Mt. Pleasant) and State Sen. Rich Taylor (D-Mt. Pleasant) spoke specifically on worker’s compensation and minimum wage issues currently being hotly debated in Des Moines.
A change to worker’s compensation laws is currently in front of the House that targets shoulder injuries and looks to move them into a scheduled injury classification, which would put it on par with a loss of a body part such as a finger or an eye. Currently the law compensates workers who have injuries to backs or shoulders as an injury to the body as a whole and figures benefits on a weekly basis at a percentage of loss to the body as a whole. The new law would cap that amount at 5 to 10% of the body as a whole, but includes a retraining benefit of $15,000 for a two-year junior college program.
However, Kearns said if you didn’t take advantage of that retraining benefit you lose it. He also did credit the Republican party for pulling certain qualifications out of the bill for example once you hit age 67 benefits stop.
“We did have it in the house yesterday and debated it for a few hours,” he said. “It’s a bad bill as far as I’m concerned. It’s bad for workers and I don’t think it’s that great for employers either. It adds cost to the state because it provides for junior college education if you can’t go back to work. And if you don’t take advantage of that, you lose the benefit.”
Kearns said it was the meatpackers in Iowa that are behind the change to the law.
“Tyson Foods and other meatpackers have an extreme amount of shoulder injuries because those jobs require bucking carcasses, and hands and arms are up all the time. They are the movers behind this because it will save them tons of money,” Kearns said. “It sh0uld continue as an injury to the body as a whole. You might be able to go to an office job or type or something, but that’s the type of injury that is. Other things in the bill consider weight, age… and those things that say, ‘well you’re fat and you’re 60 years old,’ and that’s part of this bill and it keeps an employee from getting proper benefits.”
Taylor said when the bill comes over from the House he wants to work across lines to improve the bill rather than outright opposing it, but said he would oppose it in its current form.
“When it comes over from the house and we start discussing it, I’m going to be working to fix it. I’m sure the Republican party is going to be passing it as is, but as with any other bill, I would prefer to work with them rather than just say I oppose it. I’m sure I will oppose it however, as it is written.”
Heaton said when he saw the bill initially he questioned the need.
“My question when I saw the bill was “Why are we doing this. What’s wrong,” Heaton said. “There’s a strong feeling in industry that worker’s comp is not based on written law. It is and it isn’t. It’s case law that’s deciding and setting the ground floor on the benefits that are going to be rewarded. That case law continued to grow and they felt it was time to come forward and have a written law addressed and set a new floor.
“I was concerned whether or not there was balance between the worker and the employer. That’s important and it has to be fair. The original proposal was rather draconian and one of those parts, along with no benefits after 67, was the clause about the preponderance of the injury determining the size of the award. The current code is “substantial” and what they wanted to do was change that to “predominantly” to mean that over 51% of the current job had to contribute to the injury.”
He said he wasn’t sure of the fairness of that and used the example of a truck driver who works for years for several different companies and incurs carpal tunnel syndrome.
“I always like to use the example of driving a truck. When you’re a truck driver you might drive for Schneider and then maybe CSRT. Anyway you’re going to change who you drive a truck for. But the whole time you’re driving, your hand is on the wheel under constant pressure and at some point you’re probably going to encounter carpal tunnel. Under the law they want to say the current company had to contribute to more than 51% of the injury. To me that didn’t seem quite right. A lot of people with serous confirmed injuries were going to get screwed over.”
Heaton spoke along party lines with regard to House Bill 295 that would remove local governments’ abilities to set minimum wage above the state level.
“I really strongly believe the state needs to have a minimum wage. It drives me crazy when I think individual communities and counties can take it upon themselves to have a minimum wage here and another county has a minimum wage there, and two border counties having two different wages, and cities within counties… I’m hoping this year before we go home we’ll have a statewide minimum wage. We have to clear the deck for a statewide minimum wage.
Kearns said it seemed a bit hypocritical for the majority party, who has always in the past sounded the horn for local government rights, to now take some of those rights from them. He also indicated that if the state sets a wage different from the federal wage, why would they then keep that right from local governments.
“The state does have a minimum wage, it’s the federal minimum wage. The federal wage is set but each state has an opportunity to increase that. I think most states agree with that – to compete for jobs, but minimum wage is hardly a living wage so we need to increase it. I don’t have a problem with localities increasing it if they think it’s the right thing to do for their people. I commend Lee County for starting the process although it may be short-lived if we preempt that,” Kearns said.
“How serious are we about letting these localities have control? Generally the majority has been vocal about giving local control and this year we’ve certainly seen an infringement upon that route. If that’s the way we go, Dave, I hope your party puts a decent increase on it.”
Taylor, too, said it didn’t seem to fall in line with past Republican stances on local control.
“I don’t think anyone would be happy if the federal government told the state of Iowa we couldn’t have a wage higher than their rate. So I don’t think the state should come in and tell counties what they can set for a minimum wage. I don’t think it’s right to do it, but it’s really not right if we don’t have a higher rate,” Taylor said.
“For four years when I was in the majority every bill we had I had to decide if this was a local control issue or if we were telling people to do what we say. I fought hard to make sure we didn’t put our hand down on them and I will continue fight for that.”