A House subcommittee met on Feb. 1, 2022 to discuss unemployment and tort reform. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
Doctors, plumbers, union representatives and other lobbyists crowded a Capitol conference room Tuesday to speak on a wide-ranging proposal to change Iowa unemployment laws and set a cap for medical malpractice and commercial driving accident claims.
The bill, House File 631, represents two pieces of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ workforce plan. Molly Severn, legislative liaison for Reynolds, said the governor split the omnibus bill to allow the unemployment and tort reform changes to move through more quickly.
Republican Reps. Mike Bousselot and Dave Deyoe approved the bill to advance to committee. Democratic Rep. Bruce Hunter voted against it.
The full House Labor Committee is scheduled to take up the legislation Wednesday. Bousselot said he anticipates the bill will change through the process and may be ready for floor debate by next week.
Ten fewer weeks of unemployment
Iowans could collect only 16 weeks of unemployment under the proposed law – 10 weeks fewer than the current law allows. There would also be a one-week waiting period before unemployment payments begin.
If someone lost their job because their employer closed, the employee would be eligible for 26 weeks of unemployment, down 13 weeks from the current 39 weeks.
In her Condition of the State address, Reynolds said unemployment is meant to be short term, especially in a time with an excess of open jobs.
“There are many reasons for the worker shortage, but we need to recognize that, in some cases, it’s because the government has taken away the need or desire to work,” Reynolds said in prepared remarks. “The safety net has become a hammock.”
Proponents of the legislation said the changes would encourage people to return to work sooner. JD Davis, vice president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, said the change aligns Iowa with policy in neighboring states.
“We have to make sure we understand that unemployment benefits are something that takes a person from work to work… We think that getting people back to work sooner that are in the workforce already is a goal worth pursuing,” Davis said.
Opponents said offering fewer weeks of unemployment and imposing a waiting period would punish people on unemployment who are actively looking for work. Felicia Hilton, lobbyist for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, noted that unemployment is an earned benefit, not a handout.
“In no way is this a hammock that people are laying back in, barely getting any of the money that they were making on a weekly basis,” Hilton said.
Construction workers, many of them union representatives, were especially outspoken against the cuts. Many construction jobs are seasonal, they said, and layoffs are to be expected.
Jeff Shudak, a union plumber in Council Bluffs and president of the Western Iowa Labor Federation, said he heard about the subcommittee meeting at 11 a.m. on Tuesday. He cut short his lunch break, eating his tuna sandwich on the road to the Capitol.
“I’ve laid a bunch of people off in the past… very seldomly is it because of conduct,” said Shudak, who attended the meeting in a neon yellow T-shirt and denim overalls.
The bill would also redefine what counts as a “suitable” job for an Iowan on unemployment.
Current law gives Iowans five weeks to search for a job that pays 100% of their previous wages. If they get a job offer for less, the individual may decline the offer without losing their unemployment benefits. After the first five weeks, the salary requirement for a suitable job falls to 75%, then eventually falls to 65% at 19 weeks and beyond.
The new bill would decrease the salary requirement faster. Rather than jump directly from 100% to 75% after five weeks, the acceptable pay rate would decrease gradually over the first eight weeks of unemployment, then remain at 60% for the final eight weeks.
Noneconomic damages capped for suits against health care providers
House Study Bill 631 also tackles tort changes for health care providers and trucking companies.
The bill would set $1 million as the maximum claim for noneconomic damages against a health care provider, if a jury determines that the health care provider was responsible for the loss of a bodily function, disfiguration or death.
Representatives from hospitals and other medical groups praised the change, arguing significant legal action against a provider could result in the closure of rural hospitals. They said the cap on noneconomic damages would help attract new health care employees and ward off lawyers looking for an easy win.
“We need to not have outside attorneys looking at Iowa as their lottery ticket for noneconomic damages,” said Dr. Barbara Hodne, a physician with the Iowa Clinic.
The bill would impose a similar cap for noneconomic damages resulting from commercial motor vehicle accidents, allowing for a civil action of up to $1 million. The proposal also provides employer protections, if an accident was caused by an individual employee’s negligence.
Dave Scott, a lobbyist for the Iowa Motor Truck Association, said the legislation was the result of “nuclear verdicts” around the country, with payouts in the tens of millions.
Jim Carney, lobbyist for the Iowa State Bar Association, objected to both the proposed tort reforms.
“No other professional group or industry has all the legislative protections afforded to physicians in the state of Iowa,” Carney said.
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