This was a response to an article in the Albuquerque Journal, published as an op-ed article by the Journal in September, 2010.
Something must be missing from the recent Journal column by Joline Gutierrez Kruger about a workers’ compensation claim (Sept. 13). The column told of an off-duty police officer who died when he rescued a child from the Rio Grande, on a church outing. Based on the information provided, it appears that this was not a workers’ compensation case. So I am wondering what else was omitted that might have made the story more complete.
I am commenting only about the implication left by the column and the follow-up editorial. I would not attempt to comment on the case itself. There is not enough information.
Kevin Schultz, a police officer with Pojoaque Pueblo, appears to have been a genuine hero in saving a child from drowning at the cost of his own life. He deserves our gratitude, and his family deserves our condolences and appreciation for his sacrifice. But the Journal story implies that because he was a hero, workers’ compensation benefits ought to be paid to his widow and children as a reward for merit. That is not what workers’ compensation is about.
Workers’ compensation applies to accidents that occur while a person is at work, where “at work” is used in the conventional sense. “At work” is sometimes stretched a bit (for example, it might cover a worker in his hotel room when his travel is work-related), but it does not apply when people are clearly on their own time.
Workers’ compensation is a no-fault system and therefore does not make distinctions or judgments about worthiness. A worker who was injured acting heroically is treated the same as a worker who acted carelessly.
Because the employer takes financial responsibility for the cost of the claim, the employer has an incentive to prevent accidents. That’s an inherent part of the system.
You could argue that a system based on preventing accidents doesn’t apply very well to law enforcement officers, whose jobs require them to take risk to prevent harm to others. And you’d have a persuasive point. Maybe we ought to do something about that. The question is, what should that be?
You could also argue that the total package of insurance and other employee benefits for law enforcement officers should be structured to encourage them to get involved any time their special expertise can save lives. The Journal made this point in its editorial, and it would be a good point, too. But workers’ compensation doesn’t work for that purpose.
It may be a factor that this officer was employed by a pueblo, not a local government within the State of New Mexico. The additional benefits, or absence of benefits, might be different from what is available to other police jurisdictions. (However, the pueblo appears to have provided standard New Mexico workers’ compensation from a conventional insurer.)
Workers’ compensation is a difficult and complicated system, and far from perfect. The New Mexico workers’ compensation reform is now 20 years old and would without doubt benefit from some carefully crafted updating.
But we shouldn’t try to make it work in cases such as Officer Schultz’s. To try to adapt workers’ compensation to coverage outside of working hours would fundamentally change the very nature of workers’ compensation to the point that the whole system would not function.
Finding appropriate ways to reward and encourage law enforcement officers is worth doing. It would be better to look to different options for structuring those benefits, and leave workers’ compensation out of it.