Workers’ Compensation Light Duty Offers of Work Must Be In Writing
After a work injury, the employee is often able to return to work for the employer in a “light duty” capacity. Light duty work is, by definition, less physical than the worker’s normal job, yet the employee is able to perform the work based on his or her current disability and medical restrictions. Light duty work benefits both the employer and the employee by reducing the cost of workers’ compensation benefits and helping the employee transition back to work, hopefully in his or her former job.
In 2017, the Iowa legislature made numerous changes to the workers’ compensation laws for injuries that occur after July 1, 2017. One of those changes was to amend Iowa Code section 85.33(3), the section that deals with light duty work. Section 85.33(3) now provides that offers of light duty work need to be in writing, and that if the employee refuses the work, the employee must communicate the reason for the refusal in writing or else temporary disability benefits are suspended during the period of refusal.
The Iowa Court of Appeals recently provided guidance on the new requirements of section 85.33(3). In Central Iowa Fencing, Ltd. and Grinnell Select Ins. v. Hays, No. 21-1530 (Iowa Ct. App. July 20, 2022), the employer never offered the employee light duty work in writing, and argued its verbal offer was sufficient under the statute as amended. The employer argued an offer of suitable work does not need to be in writing, and that the employee only needs to refuse in writing if the offer is made in writing. The Iowa Court of Appeals rejected this argument. The Court emphasized how the statute used the word “shall” when it said, “The employer shall communicate an offer of temporary work to the employee in writing.” In other words, the statute required a written offer; it was not optional. Further, by adding this requirement, “the legislature required tangible evidence from which the commissioner could evaluate the work offered and basis of refusal in temporary partial disability cases, lessening the commissioner’s need to rely on credibility determinations of the employer’s and employee’s testimony on a critical question.” In other words, requiring a written offer takes some of the guesswork away and “ensures evidence exists that suitable work is offered to the injured employee, the offer is accepted or rejected, and the employer has an opportunity to modify duties if necessary for the work to be suitable—both parties can be held accountable.”
The Court left unanswered some questions about section 85.33(3), such as whether the consequences of the employee’s refusal (i.e., benefit suspension) need to be in writing, how specific the written offer needs to be about the work being offered, whether new written offers need to be made every time a worker receives updated medical restrictions, whether a written offer needs to be made if the injured worker has already accepted a verbal offer and has returned to work, etc. We expect the Commissioner’s office and appellate courts to answer these and other questions about section 85.33(3) in future cases.
As always, please feel free to contact any of our attorneys for questions regarding this or any other workers’ compensation issues.