Labor missed an opportunity on a workers’ compensation issue

Sorry, my friends in organized labor, you missed one.

On a party line vote, Democrats in the New Mexico House Labor and Economic Development Committee voted to kill a harmless little memorial, HJM 5, sponsored by Rep. Randall Crowder (R.-Curry). The memorial (memorials are nonbinding legislative recommendations) asked for future studies of the workers’ compensation system, to be conducted by independent research organizations — one this year and one every five years thereafter.

Studies are good for injured workers. They reveal gaps and hardships in the system and suggest things that should be fixed, usually to benefit workers.

Organized labor was apparently behind the effort to kill the memorial. Somebody commented that any studies should be done under the next governor, as if a study done this year would be biased against workers.

It’s been almost 20 years since the last independent study of New Mexico workers’ comp. The Worker’s Compensation Administration commissioned the RAND Corporation to study the long-range financial outcomes of injured workers receiving workers’ comp benefits. The researchers used sophisticated methods and had access to in-depth data. They also compared New Mexico results to four other states they were studying at the same time. The information provided a factual basis for improvements in worker benefits.

The Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council has been asking for new studies for several years. This year, since they weren’t asking for other legislation, they thought this memorial had a chance.

The memorial could have been better worded. It shouldn’t have been specific about issues to be studied. The intent could easily be distorted, and apparently it was. The list of issues should have been left to be decided later by the Advisory Council and staff experts.

But still, there was no good reason to oppose this modest request.

Organized labor has an extraordinarily powerful voice in workers’ comp. The Advisory Council, which is established in law and whose approval is essential for any workers’ comp legislation to pass, is composed of three members representing business and three representing workers.

Through the years, organized labor has demanded that all worker representatives must be union members. Several years ago, when the Martinez administration appointed someone who was not a union member, labor caused a showdown and won.

But labor has not been providing leadership on the issues. The labor leaders who participated when the law was reformed in 1990 are retired and gone, and their younger replacements have not done the homework. They’ve left the details to the trial lawyers, but the interests of workers and lawyers are not identical.

How workers’ comp affects the individual injured worker is very complicated. So, for example, if I were to tell you the permanent partial disability formula might be discriminatory against women, you’d say, “What? How could that be?” Answer: the formula favors workers who did physically heavy labor as measured by lifting. Most heavy lifting is done by men. Does this formula disadvantage injured women workers? Without data we don’t know.

The memorial suggested studying the opioid issue. I don’t believe it was intended to deprive injured workers of needed pain medication, but perhaps to find out the best practices in other states for handling our drug addiction problem. I wouldn’t be surprised if such a study would lead to a ringing endorsement of medical marijuana, but without data that’s just a guess.

Without data, you are flying blind if you try to estimate the benefits and costs of any proposed change to the system.

Meanwhile, these days insurance premiums are relatively low and there might be an opportunity to do a little horsetrading – propose some kind of clearly worded and narrowly targeted increase for injured workers in return for resolving some of the procedural problems created by case law. But you can have that conversation only if you know what you’re talking about.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2018





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