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Injured on the job while drunk? You still get workers comp benefits in NM

By   /   February 6, 2014  /   2 Comments

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE – Workers in New Mexico who are drunk or high on drugs and get injured on the job can still get 90 percent in workers’ compensation benefits.

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

“Common sense tells me and my constituents tell me 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.

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.

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.

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, which he feared 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 Thursday.

“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 those who work around them.

“We have responsible workers who are being compromised by workers who are not responsible,” Ezzell said. “Rep. 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.

Right 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 willfully 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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Since 2010, Rob Nikolewski has covered New Mexico politics and investigated fraud, waste and abuse in government. He also writes an opinion column in the Sunday editions of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Rob joined New Mexico Watchdog after 20 years in television as a sports anchor and reporter. He anchored at MSNBC, New York City, Boston, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Reno and Boise, winning three regional Emmy awards along the way. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in public administration from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a bachelor's degree in journalism from Trinity University in San Antonio.

  • Charles

    It would be interesting to do research to see what the law is in other states regarding whether intoxication on the job bars a comp recovery. I suspect that NM is in the minority. Remember also that NM appellate courts are nearly totally controlled by Democrat judges and justices. If we had more Republican appellate court judges, the decision may well have been different. The last time Republicans held a majority on our state Supreme Court was in the 1920’s. Our Court of Appeals was founded in 1966 and has never had a Republican majority.

  • Jerry Dunn

    Drunk on the job is not a Democrat vs Republican thing. A business employs lots of family members, who are supposed to watch out for each other and the majority do. The person, who gets drunk on a dangerous job that can cause serious injury to others is a hazard to him, his family and his co-workers. He’s a selfish person, who only cares about himself.

    If Mr. Martinez wants to help the family of the drunk person, then he should support alcohol and drug testing on the job to prevent these kinds of things from happening and support laws that will prevent this kind of thing from happening.

    Oh, but that would be infringing on the employee’s privacy.

    Let me ask you, if one of Mr. Martinez’s family was killed by a drunk driver, would he be worrying about the drunk drivers family or his own?

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