A new law limits the amount of compensation an Iowa worker can receive for a shoulder injury. Critics say the change makes workers disposable, but proponents point out that the law also provides tuition so injured employees can retrain for new careers.
In January, 2016, 51-year-old Bill Bennett of Pleasantville fell at work and tore the rotator cuff on his right shoulder. The injury makes his dominant right arm useless for movements as basic as pouring a cup of coffee.
"The thing that hurts most is not only lifting," says Bennett say he pours himself a cup of coffee with his left hand, "but when you turn your arm, or rotate your shoulder, that’s where the pain comes in. So to hold the coffee pot and rotate it, you just can’t do it."
Before getting hurt, Bennett installed and repaired large industrial garage doors, a job that required lots of lifting and physical strength. With overtime he says he earned nearly $80,000 a year, but it doesn’t look like Bennett is going back to work.
"I probably only get two hours of sleep a night cause once the pain starts and I’m up. And then I can’t get back to sleep," he says.
Bennett’s situation seems pretty rough, but in a way he’s lucky his injury occurred before this summer.
Right now, Iowa’s worker’s compensation law treats shoulder injuries as full body injuries. That means compensation is factored not only on the severity of the shoulder’s impairment, but also takes into account things like age, education and experience.
When a new law goes into effect on July 1, shoulder injuries will become scheduled or extremity injuries. So the only thing that compensation will be based on is a person’s shoulder’s disability rating.
Advocates of the legislation say that surrounding states also classify shoulder injuries as extremities. And they argue the new law prevents people from receiving compensation awards that are disproportionately large, when compared to the actual injury.
Republican Rep. Gary Carlson of Muscatine was the bill's floor manage. He says the changes are fair, because in exchange for shoulder injuries receiving smaller compensations, it also requires employers to pay up to $15,000 per injured employee to attend community college so they can find a new job.
When I asked Carlson what someone like Bennett could do, he suggested a couple ideas. Maybe a managerial job, or something in quality assurance, or manufacturing.
"Our goal is to get people in the workforce. We have a workforce shortage. We have a skill shortage. So helping people continue to transition, you know I think that’s a more positive workforce story," says Carlson.
What Carlson wants is possible, to a point.
Sara Clayton, a career center specialist at Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny, says there are many employment options for someone like Bennett.
"We do see a lot of our graduates coming out of our tool and die programs, our electronics, and robotics, and automations programs, electronics engineering programs," says Clayton. "[They're] making really good salaries and many of those roles wouldn’t require with heavy lifting or anything like that."
According to the Department of Labor’s Career One Stop website several of these careers have healthy salary ranges. But for someone who doesn’t have the full use of their shoulder, it’s not likely they’ll be able to retrain for an entry-level job where they could earn $80,000 a year, even with overtime.
Lin Phillips is a career transition counselor in Des Moines. She says while the new law is well intentioned, she thinks that it wasn't well thought out.
"The cruel hard reality is their probably going to face an occupation that pays less that what they were paid at the time of the injury," says Phillips.
In particular, Phillips says the law doesn’t take into consideration that age discrimination is a major barrier for many older workers, especially in careers that require more tech skills.
"Older works are considered out of date, slower to learn. And intentionally or not, pretty much automatically excluded from moving up in the ranks," she says.
Though this new law won’t apply to Bill Bennett, I ask what sort of career he might want to train for. He doesn’t know what that would be, especially because many of his options would require him to work at a desk.
"I’ve been in the field for 30 years," he says. "I just don’t think I would click in an office. I’d go crazy."
But even if he could find a career that he didn’t hate, Bennett says he’s so close to retirement age he worries it wouldn’t be worth it.