Taking care of injured heroes

We get emotional  — rightly so – when a law enforcement officer is injured by a criminal in the line of duty.

Robin Hopkins, a Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy, was shot by a fleeing criminal in October and is facing a long recovery.

One recent TV news report stated, “Because she is no longer contributing to her retirement, she is having to take a 30 percent pay cut.”  Oh, dear.  That is so inaccurate.  It’s not a pay cut.  It’s workers’ compensation.

The Bernalillo County commission took special action for Deputy Hopkins last week, adding 22 hours per week of administrative leave to the benefits she was already receiving.  According to Sgt. Aaron Williamson, sheriff’s department information officer, the sheriff is now determined to fix the problem for all law enforcement officers injured in such circumstances.

I had previously checked with Joe Crelier of Bernalillo County’s risk management department. This article combines what he told me and my prior knowledge of workers’ comp.

Workers’ comp treats a deputy shot by a criminal the same as any worker injured at work.  The law applies equally to public and private employers.  Heroism doesn’t count in workers’ comp.  That’s intentional; it’s a no-fault system, intended to simplify decision-making.  No fault, no glory.

Bernalillo County provides additional benefits beyond workers’ comp.   These benefits also apply to any injured county employee, not just a heroic one.

Anyone whose work-related injury makes him or her temporarily unable to work receives “temporary total disability” (TTD) workers’ comp benefits.  These benefits are, by law, two-thirds of the worker’s average weekly wage, including applicable overtime.  Because it’s an insurance benefit, not a wage, there is no income tax, so the net result is higher than two-thirds.

TTD is never 100 percent of wages because a century of worldwide workers’ comp experience has shown that workers who get 100 percent of their wages for staying home doing nothing are likely to continue staying home forever.  That would lead to crippling insurance costs and to a lot of former workers who thought they were gaming the system but in fact were making themselves miserable with no purpose in life.   There’s a century of experience on that, too. After recovery, if there is a permanent physical impairment, additional benefits are paid.

Workers’ comp pays all the medical costs related to the injury, with no deductible.  If the worker does not give up the benefit with a legal settlement, it will continue to cover all injury-related medical care for the rest of her life.

A Bernalillo County employee gets addional benefits from the county’s “injury time” policy. According to Crelier, the county pays the employee’s health insurance premiums, including family coverage.  The employee accrues vacation and sick leave; when she’s recovered, she has credit toward a vacation. Some employees, depending on their wages, receive a cash supplement.

Injury time lasts up to 20 weeks, said Crelier. The administrative leave provision extends them for Deputy Hopkins.

Then there’s the retirement issue.  Workers’ comp benefits are not wages. The off-duty worker is not contributing to PERA, the state’s pension fund, therefore not accruing credit toward retirement.  The worker has to work additional months before qualifying for a pension.  With administrative leave, Deputy Hopkins is now accruing time toward retirement.

There’s a good chance we’ll see legislation on this subject and that other law enforcement agencies will jump on this bandwagon. The ordinary benefits accorded injured employees may not be good enough for injured heroes.

I’m all for it, but here’s my plea: keep it separate and outside of workers’ comp.  That system is complicated enough already.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2013

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