In memory of Jerry Stuyvesant

Jerry Stuyvesant died in March. He has not been sufficiently eulogized, and his contribution to New Mexico has not been adequately recognized – partly due to COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings. Here’s a piece of the story of this very distinguished man.

Jerry (officially Gerald) Stuyvesant was director of the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration when I started there in 1991. His presence was essential to the workers’ compensation reform that saved the state’s economy in 1990.

He was appointed in 1989 by Republican Gov. Garrey Carruthers and retained by Democratic Gov. Bruce King. As a consummate professional of international stature, he should have stayed through succeeding administrations, which would have enabled the agency to maintain its nonpolitical character. The failure to support his reappointment in 1995 was a bad decision by Republican Gov. Gary Johnson.

In the mid-1980s, the workers’ compensation system was strangling the economy of New Mexico. Insurance premiums were so high that businesses couldn’t pay them. Almost all insurance companies had deserted the state. The economic climate and costs of litigation had become too hostile and unpredictable.

The WCA was created by statute in 1986, in part to be a special purpose court for workers’ comp claims, to be decided by a small group of specialized expert judges. The law was amended repeatedly in attempts to get costs under control until the reform of 1990, which finally succeeded.

As director, Stuyvesant guided the 1990 task force that developed the historic compromise between business and labor, creating the law that saved the economy, the same law that is now in danger of being chipped away, year after year. No director since Stuyvesant has understood the intricacies of the system as thoroughly or had the commanding presence to keep the system stable as he did.

The thing about workers’ comp, you see, is that if you don’t understand it, you probably dislike it. You think it’s unjust and illogical because it appears to be unfair to your side. Only people who understand it see the brilliance in the way it balances competing interests and limits the influence of the various professions that want get a bigger share at the expense of injured workers and small employers.

The reform led to foaming-at-the-mouth fury on the part of a few professions whose members had been making a comfortable living from this system for decades. The lawyers now had limits on how much they could charge; and the new system made it easier for injured workers to get benefits without needing a lawyer at all. The doctors now had to live with a fee schedule and limitations on the number of extra services that they could order and bill for. And so on.

Suddenly this Wild West had – gulp – accountability. Stuyvesant had not written the law, but he was the sheriff in charge of enforcing it. He was up to the task and not intimidated by anyone, even the politicians who were permanently enraged that King had trusted this agency to a Republican holdover.

He told me years later that his tenure at the WCA was a minor phase of his adventurous professional life. But he was a major contributor in overcoming the crisis of that time.

He died after a prolonged battle with Plasma Cell Leukemia, which he told me was the result of exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

Stuyvesant was a United States Air Force veteran of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, having served with distinction for 23 years and retired at the rank of major. He received numerous commendations, medals, and awards including the Meritorious Service Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal, which he was awarded six times.

I am forever grateful to have worked for him.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2021

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