Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Rules on COVID-19 Vaccine Side Effects Case
January 11, 2024
By: Shelley Goodell
A recent decision by the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner considered the impact of COVID-19 vaccine side effects on an employee whose employer had “strongly encouraged”, but not mandated, they receive the vaccine.
After receiving the COVID-19 vaccination, an employee of the City of Cedar Rapids developed Guillain Barre Syndrome, a serious side effect caused by the vaccine, and filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits.
The City’s policy throughout the pandemic was to follow CDC guidelines. The City admitted to strongly encouraging employees to receive the vaccine and sent numerous messages to this effect. One message provided a link to schedule a vaccine appointment from an off-site provider. Employees were permitted to receive the vaccine during regular work hours, with no dock in pay. The City did not mandate the vaccine or host a vaccination clinic on City property. Employees were not required to report their vaccination status, and no reward or punishment was tied to the employees’ decision regarding the vaccine.
In this case of first impression, the Commissioner found the injury suffered by Claimant from the side effects of the vaccine did not arise out of or occur in the course of employment, based upon the facts of this case, which merely established the City “strongly urged” its employees to be vaccinated. Declining to adopt the Larson’s standard, the Commissioner reasoned:
If an employer strongly urged its employees to pursue annual physicals, it would seem strange that the employer would be found liable for an injury if the worker fell on ice while attending a physical with their personal physician. Yet, encouraging employees to obtain annual physicals would result in a healthier workforce and presumably less absenteeism. The standard set forth in Larson's treatise seems to convert the worker's compensation system into a general health insurance program, if the employee can demonstrate that the employer encouraged an employee to do something, even if the injury was not foreseeable, likely, or controllable by the employer. I simply reject the "strongly urged" standard created by Larson's treatise and I conclude that the injured worker must demonstrate that he or she sustained an injury that arose out of his or her employment as a result of an actual risk associated with the employment. In this case, the employment duties claimant performed did not present an actual risk of an adverse reaction to a vaccine. Therefore, I find claimant's injury did not arise out of his employment with defendant.
The Commissioner intimated that if other evidence were presented, such as the vaccine was mandated, and/or there was an incentive provided to encourage receiving the vaccine, the holding may be different. Thus, while the decision is dependent on its facts, the Commissioner’s language and analysis appear more broadly applicable.
A Petition for Judicial Review was filed January 10, 2024.