Most Iowa workers are protected by workers’ compensation laws. Workers’ comp is a kind of insurance that employers are required to have by state law. It compensates employees who are injured on the job for medical costs, lost wages they suffer as a result of those injuries, and long-term permanent disability (if applicable). Although Iowa law protects workers who file for or receive workers’ compensation benefits from retaliation, you may worry that claiming workers’ compensation benefits will impact your employer’s decision to continue your employment.

Iowa Law Prohibits Retaliatory Termination

Terminating an employee for claiming workers’ compensation benefits is prohibited by Iowa law. While you are out of work, undergoing treatment, and working through the workers’ compensation claim process, an employer may not terminate you because of your absence or inability to work. When you have fully recovered or reached maximum medical improvement (MMI), your claim will be valued, and you and your employer must determine whether you can return to work, either with or without reasonable accommodation.

Although you cannot be terminated based on claiming workers’ compensation benefits, your employer is not obligated to continue your employment if you cannot perform your job responsibilities, even if given reasonable accommodation, once you have reached MMI.

For instance, imagine you are employed as a pilot. One of the essential functions of your job is to fly a plane, which requires you to maintain a pilot’s license that includes a vision test. You trip and fall in the hangar while on the job, suffering damage to your cornea. During your recovery, your employer has the option to offer you light duty work or to pay temporary total disability until you reach maximum medical improvement (MMI). If you do not qualify for a pilot’s license when you reach MMI, however, your employer is not required to find another position for you and may terminate your employment.

Pretextual Termination Claims

Most employees in Iowa have an “at will” employment relationship with their employers. This means that employers can terminate them for any non-prohibited reason (or no reason whatsoever) with or without cause, notice, disciplinary procedures, or compensation at any time throughout the employment relationship—whether during a “probationary” period or not. Exceptions include workers who are union members (who are subject to the terms and protections of their union or collective bargaining agreements) and employees who are working under an employment contract that changes the “at will” nature of the relationship.

Often, however, terminated employees who have recently filed for workers’ compensation benefits claim that they have been terminated pretextually­. This means that they suspect the real reason they were fired (or demoted, terminated, suspended, etc.) was that they applied for or used their workers’ comp benefits or because of their work-related injuries. An employer does not have to give any reason for a termination, but an explanation that is incongruous with its past pattern of behavior, demonstrably false, or suspiciously vague can be evidence that you may have a legal claim for retaliatory termination.

Constructive Termination Claims

Another common complaint is that an employer has “constructively terminated” a worker recovering from an injury by taking action that essentially forces the injured worker to quit. Plaintiffs in constructive termination cases allege that employers use a variety of tactics, including moving the worker to a harder job, changing the worker’s shift to a less desirable or inconsistent schedule, lowering the worker’s pay, changing the worker’s fringe benefits, constantly criticizing the employee, or otherwise making the work environment intolerable. Constructive termination claims can be difficult to prove. Iowa courts hold that

Constructive discharge arises “when the employer deliberately makes an employee’s working conditions so intolerable that the employee is forced into an involuntary resignation.” … To establish constructive discharge, the plaintiff must show that the “working conditions would have been so difficult or unpleasant that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would be compelled to resign.”

In sum, it’s not always illegal for an employer to terminate or take an adverse employment action against an employee who has claimed workers’ comp, but it is illegal to do so because of that worker’s injury or claim for benefits. If you’ve been hurt on the job, don’t hesitate to file for the worker’s compensation benefits you deserve.

If you have suffered a work-related injury and have questions about filing for worker’s compensation, contact Platt Law today. We can help you pursue the compensation that you deserve for your injuries. To schedule an appointment, contact us online or call us at 515-278-1522.

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