By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE – Employees who injure themselves on the job while drunk or under the influence of drugs can continue to receive workers’ compensation benefits because a legislative move to deny such claims has stalled.
Proponents say refusing such payouts is simple common sense.
“I believe it’s a personal responsibility question,” said Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Texico, after his House Bill 139 was tabled in the House Labor and Human Resources Committee on a party-line vote, with all five Democrats voting to table the bill and all four Republicans voting against.
The case dates back to 2006 when a city sanitation employee in Las Cruces named Edward Villa fell off his garbage truck and injured his head, wrists and a hip. Some three hours after Villa hurt himself, he was found to have a blood-alcohol level of .12, well above the .08 limit in New Mexico for being legally drunk.
But because of a lack of clarity in the interpretation of the Workers’ Compensation Act, an appeals court ruled that Villa was entitled to 90 percent of his workman’s compensation claim, which cost taxpayers in the city of Las Cruces about $90,000.
Working with the court system, Roch introduced HB139 to streamline legal contradictions while including drug abuse as well as alcohol abuse in rejecting potential workers’ comp claims. The bill was approved by the Advisory Council on Workers’ Compensation and Occupational Disease.
Roch says the bill would only apply to workers’ compensation benefits and not touch the medical benefits that would go to an injured worker.
“It was kind of overbearing and punitive in terms of the worker,” Garcia told New Mexico Watchdog, adding, “You’re also dealing with issues of family members who are heirs to entitlements.”
But Roch countered, “We have to protect all the other workers who are on the job site and their families.
“Because you have one guy or one gal that comes to work under the influence, and they drive a forklift and they run over a colleague, who, through no fault of their own, is put in harm’s way, that’s the folks we have to protect. So this is about workplace safety as much as anything else.”
Roch says labor union opposition to the bill influenced Democrats on the committee.
“Ultimately the members of the labor committee who voted to table it are watching organized labor representatives for their cue on how to vote on this,” Roch said. “It’s unfortunate.”
A bill that has been tabled can theoretically be brought back to life if a member on the House floor calls for bringing it off the Speaker’s table to debate the legislation, a practice called “blasting” a bill. But Roch told New Mexico Watchdog he’s not planning to do that.
“If there’s political capital to be spent, I think there are places we can spend it and get more bang for the buck,” Roch said.
The reaction to the bill’s tabling in its very first committee hearing has produced criticism, including an opinion piece in the Las Cruces Sun-News saying the committee’s decision perpetuates a situation that “simply defies sense.”
The committee decision has prompted the introduction of a bill in the Senate that largely mirrors Roch’s tabled bill.
“We introduced it on the Senate side to keep the debate going,” said state Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, of his Senate Bill 465. “It’s just common sense. If you show up to work drunk or on drugs and you hurt yourself, the taxpayers and the workman’s comp fund shouldn’t be paying you off.”
But as of Monday, there were just 27 days left in the 60-day session, and SB465, which has been assigned to be first heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee, has not been heard yet.
Concact Rob Nikolewski at [email protected].