If hurt, drunk workers can still get comp benefits in NM


WORKING WHILE UNDER THE INFLUENCE: For the third straight year, a bill banning workers compensation benefits to employees in New Mexico who injure themselves on the job while impaired was tabled in committee.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — Drunk or high workers in New Mexico hurt on the job can still get 90 percent of compensation benefits as they recover.

For the third consecutive legislative session, a bill from state Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, to eliminate the practice was turned back in its initial committee hearing.

“Common sense tells me and my constituents that this change needs to occur so we don’t have an unsafe workplace and incentivize people to make bad decisions that jeopardize others,” Roch told New Mexico Watchdog after the House Labor and Human Resources Committee voted, 4-3, to table House Bill 113.

All the votes in favor of tabling the bill came from Democrats; all the “no” votes came from Republicans.

Among those voting to table HB113 was Speaker of the House W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, who said the bill mixed common law with statutory law, and he was afraid that would cause more problems than it solved.

“It’s going to drive up litigation,” Martinez said, adding that a reduction or elimination of workers’ comp benefits would be borne not only on the impaired worker but on the members of his family.

“You have an innocent family who did not make a bad choice but they end up getting no workers comp benefits and no medical benefits,” Martinez said.

Committee chairman Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, said a better solution would be to hammer out an agreement with the state’s Advisory Council on Workers Compensation, which, the committee was told, was not fully staffed until last week.

“This is issue is being used as a political football,” Garcia said. “We’re talking about people’s lives here, their benefits.”

Among those in opposition to tabling was Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, who said impaired workers are not only a danger to themselves but also to those around them.

“We have responsible workers who are being compromised by workers who are not responsible,” Ezzell said. “Representative Roch has been here for three years. Nobody is going forward on this … it’s a question of whether we’re going to man up and grow a pair.”

“There is that small percentage (of impaired workers) that is putting their fellow workers at risk,” said Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Rio Rancho. “Are we going to wait, as usual, until somebody dies and then say, why? This type of legislation makes sense.”

Roch’s bill had the support of a number of business organizations and contractors but was opposed by trade unions and the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association.

After Roch’s bill was tabled, the committee heard a similar bill from Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, that would bar an employee from receiving workers comp if an injury was self-inflicted. It would also deny any workers comp benefits if an employee was injured while intoxicated.

The committee didn’t act on Cook’s bill, with Garcia advising Cook to work with Roch and the Workers Compensation Advisory Council to possibly combine the bills.

Roch’s efforts stem from an incident in 2006, when a city sanitation employee in Las Cruces fell off a garbage truck and injured his head, wrists and a hip. Some three hours later the worker was found to have a blood-alcohol level of .12, well above the .08 legal limit in New Mexico.

But because of a lack of clarity in the Workers’ Compensation Act, an appeals court ruled the employee was entitled to 90 percent of his workman’s compensation claim, which cost taxpayers in Las Cruces about $90,000.

“See you next year,” Roch said after the committee tabled his bill.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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