Note: This story is part of a package of news articles on the current session of the New Mexico Legislature that the Quay County Sun has obtained from the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper.
By Milan Simonich
The New Mexican
Democrats in the state House of Representatives on Thursday blocked a bill to cut workers’ compensation benefits for drunken employees who are injured on the job.
The proposal, by Republican Rep. Dennis Roch of Logan, was tabled on a 4-3 party-line vote of the House Labor and Human Resources Committee.
House Speaker Kenny Martinez, D-Grants, led the opposition to Roch’s bill. Martinez said the measure would unfairly change the workers’ compensation system and could penalize widows and children for the irresponsible actions of a family’s breadwinner.
Roch’s bill was inspired by a decision of the state Court of Appeals. The court in 2010 said conflicting state laws on workers’ compensation benefits had enabled a drunken Las Cruces city worker to collect more than $100,000 in workers’ compensation benefits after he fell off his garbage truck.
“An employer ought not be on the hook for the poor decision of an employee,” Roch said.
Numerous business groups, including contractors and homebuilders, testified in support of his bill. Their representatives said it was an important step toward improving workplace safety.
Opposition was just as heavy, coming from trade unions and trial lawyers.
“The bill comes down too hard on injured workers,” said Bob Scott, an attorney who handles workers’ compensation cases.
Roch said he sponsored the bill because current state law allows drunken employees to collect up to 90 percent of workers’ compensation benefits if they are hurt on the job. That was what happened in the Las Cruces case.
City worker Edward Villa arrived at work intoxicated on April 7, 2006, then skipped the usual check-in procedure, according to court records. Soon after, Villa fell off his truck while trying to dislodge a garbage bin from the hopper. He injured his head, wrists and a hip.
Three hours after Villa’s fall, his blood alcohol level was measured as 0.12, well above the level for a drunken-driving conviction. The city fired Villa. But he sued and received nearly all of his workers’ compensation benefits.
That was because of two state laws at odds on this issue. One law says a drunken worker is not entitled to benefits. But another says his workers’ compensation award can be reduced by only 10 percent if intoxication or the influence of drugs is “a contributing cause to the injury.”
Roch’s bill sought to limit awards to drunken workers to between 25 percent and 75 percent.
But Martinez said these penalties could be unfair if a worker was found to be only 5 percent negligent. Moreover, Martinez said, the case in question was a rarity. Most workers’ compensation claims have nothing to do with an employee being intoxicated, he said.
Martinez said the workers’ compensation system was structured to render quick findings in return for reduced benefits to injured workers. Roch’s bill would create a new system of law undercutting that compromise, Martinez said.
As for Roch, he said he would be back next year with a another bill aimed at reducing awards to drunken workers injured on the job. It would be his fourth attempt to change the workers’ compensation laws.
Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow his Ringside Seat blog at sfnewmexican.com.