Traveling Long Distances for “Light Duty”: What Is Reasonable?

July 2014

Under Iowa Code Section 85.33(3), an employee who sustains a work-related injury that renders him temporarily, partially disabled must accept “suitable work consistent with the employee’s disability” to qualify for temporary partial workers’ compensation benefits. Employees who refuse suitable work forfeit their benefits.

Because the code section is silent on what types of work constitute “suitable” work, employers have generally enjoyed a great deal of flexibility when it comes to offering temporarily disabled employees “light duty” assignments. For example, many trucking companies engaged in the practice of requiring truck drivers to travel long distances to fulfill their light duty work assignments.

Neal v. Annett Holdings, Inc.

In Neal v. Annett Holdings, Inc., 814 N.W.2d 512, the Iowa Supreme Court addressed the commercial truck industry’s practice of accommodating temporarily disabled employees by requiring them to travel to a light duty assignment. In many cases, these assignments were located hundreds of miles from the drivers’ homes, forcing them to stay in temporary lodgings and visit their families just a couple times per month.

The worker in Neal was an over-the-road flatbed truck driver who injured his shoulder while lifting himself onto a stack of plywood on his truck. His doctor diagnosed him with a rotator cuff injury and restricted the amount of weight he could lift. In response, his employer offered him a light duty work assignment 387 miles from his home. The assignment would have required him to travel from his home in Illinois, where he lived with his wife and three children, to Des Moines every other weekend. The company only offered to reimburse him for travel expenses to return home to see his family every other week. When the employee refused the offer, his employer denied his workers’ compensation benefits.

Although the deputy commissioner concluded that the employer’s offer qualified as “suitable work” under the Iowa code, the commissioner modified the decision on appeal, stating that the offer was not suitable due to its lengthy distance from the worker’s home.

The Iowa Supreme Court held that the employer’s offer did not constitute “suitable work.” The Court noted that, although the statute does not explicitly consider distance in its language, other states have held that “the distance of available work may be considered in determining the employee’s eligibility for workers’ compensation benefits.” The Court also reiterated a point made by the commissioner that: “Being away from the support of your wife and family, especially while recovering from a serious work injury, is not an insignificant matter.” Although the employee was an over-the-road trucker who frequently spent time away from home prior to his injury, the employer’s light duty job offer allowed him to return home just twice a month, cutting his time with his family in half.

Iowa Workers’ Compensation Law

Contact Attorney Ed Keane today at (712) 234-3088 to discuss your workers’ compensation case.

This website has been prepared by Keane Law Firm for informational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. The information is not provided in the course of an attorney-client relationship and is not intended to substitute for legal advice from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.