Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
The recent spate of law-enforcement officers injured in the line of duty has exposed a longtime state policy: They get no credit toward their retirement during the time they’re on leave recovering.
It’s also raised questions about whether injured officers receive any pay other than workers’ compensation while they recover.
The situation has captured the attention of the Legislature.
The “Line of Duty Injury Act,” introduced in the current legislative session, encourages state and local municipalities to develop procedures allowing eligible public safety employees to continue accruing credit toward their pension benefits while they’re on leave. It also recommends extending the amount of time a hurt employee can be placed on injury leave so that they still draw a full salary.
Workers’ compensation usually pays such officers about two-thirds of their pay until they can return to work. The city of Albuquerque pays its injured officers the difference for up to six months in a year. Injured Bernalillo County sheriff’s officers typically receive only the workers’ compensation, although the County Commission has expressed an interest in reviewing that.
Injured employees also can use sick time and vacation leave.
HB 211 has already passed the House and is currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but time is running out since the legislative session ends at noon Thursday.
Bill sponsor Rep. Paul A. Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, said the proposed legislation is narrowly focused. When injured officers go on workers’ compensation, “they go into what’s called dead time, where they are no longer accumulating time toward retirement,” he said. “That’s what the bill is trying to address.”
The bill does not make the changes mandatory, but Pacheco said it aims to set up a framework for other issues related to injured officers to be resolved later, when budgets are not so tight.
“It’s a positive public statement in support of public safety employees,” said Vincent Yermal, Albuquerque’s Human Resources director.
The reality, Yermal said, “is all these benefits, no matter how well-intentioned, ultimately depend on the organization or municipality’s ability to pay.”
The bill would apply to county and municipal police, sheriff’s and fire departments, the Corrections Department, the Children, Youth and Families Department, the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Game and Fish.
Rash of injuries
Pacheco, a former Albuquerque police officer for 27 years, said he introduced the bill in response to the rash of incidents in which police officers from various agencies were injured.
Among those incidents was a shooting rampage in Albuquerque’s North Valley last October that injured Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Deputy Robin Hopkins and Albuquerque Police officers Daniel Morales, Eric Martinez and Matthew Hannum.
Also in October, State Police officer Joey Gallegos was shot in the stomach in Española, State Police Sgt. Lawrence Murray was shot in the leg in Roswell, and Roswell Police Sgt. Steve Meredith, who was directing traffic after the incident involving Murray, was hit by a passing vehicle. More recently, Corrales police officer Jeremy Romero was injured in a high-speed crash in the village.
As outlined by the bill, a public safety employee who is hurt on the job could receive paid injury leave up to 1,500 hours – or 37 weeks – in any 12-month period, or 32 hours in any seven-day period.
The city of Albuquerque’s current injury leave is a combination of workers’ compensation, which provides up to 66.66 percent of the officer’s salary, and a supplement from the city to bring the officer’s salary to nearly 100 percent.
The supplement is limited to 960 hours, nearly a half year of a person’s full salary, as predicated on a 40-hour workweek.
This supplement “is designed to keep them whole while they are on Workers Comp” – at least up to 960 hours, Yermal said. Firefighters get the supplement for 1,344 hours, based on a 56-hour workweek, he said.
After that, officers are on workers’ comp solely, but they can add to that by cashing in unused sick leave and vacation leave. The maximum sick leave a city employee can accrue is 1,200 hours, though police can accrue up to 2,000 hours, and firefighters can accrue up to 1,440 hours. When sick leave and vacation time are exhausted, employees have access to a volunteer program in which fellow employees can donate sick and vacation hours. No limit has been placed on how much can be donated, Yermal said.
After that, employees go on unpaid status, where they can remain for 12 months, though police officers may be able to get an additional 36 months.
From the time they are injured on the job and can no longer go to work, they get no credit toward retirement through the state Public Employees Retirement Association, and only medical bills related to the injury received on the job are fully covered by the city.
The city will continue to pay 80 percent of medical insurance premiums, and the officers are responsible for the remaining 20 percent, which is deducted from their injury pay.
In New Mexico, there is no limit to how long an injured officer can remain on workers’ comp, as long as doctors can corroborate the need for ongoing care, said Christine Chavez, a workers’ compensation claims specialist, with the Bernalillo County Risk Management Department.
In Bernalillo County, officials have been dealing with compensation for injured deputies, with the focus most recently on Deputy Hopkins.
Injured deputies get workers’ comp at 66.66 percent of their salary, as set by law. There is no supplemental injury leave pay similar to what the city offers.
Hopkins, of course, can supplement her income by cashing in any unused sick days and vacation days, said Kyle Hartsock, president of the Bernalillo County Deputy Sheriff’s Association. There is no cap on the number of sick leave days that a deputy can accumulate, but vacation is capped at 290 hours. Department policy is that injured officers must first used any unused sick leave.
The county pays all reasonable and necessary medical expenses related to an on-the-job injury, which in the case of Hopkins are protracted and substantial, Hartsock said.
Several years ago, Bernalillo County adopted a policy that extended the insurance for an additional 800 hours, about five months, for all employees who are injured on the job and cannot immediately return to work. The county pays 100 percent of that insurance up to 800 hours.
Because the county “doesn’t cover anything beyond her medical insurance up to 800 hours, or five months,” and because Hopkins’ injuries were so severe and long-term, Hartsock said, the county agreed to put her on administrative leave so she could remain on the county payroll and receive her normal salary.
Also, the county can continue paying its share toward both her retirement and her medical insurance.
The County Commission has asked the county manager to develop a long-term policy to address similar situations involving injured deputies in the future, he said.
New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said he already has the authority give State Police officers injured in the line of duty up to 1,440 hours of full-paid duty injury leave.
What HB 211 would allow him to do is extend that benefit to two other divisions under his control, the Motor Transportation Division and the Special Investigations Division, whose employees are “classified” and only entitled to get up to five days of administrative leave in the event of an on-the-job injury.
“This bill is where we need to go because it would allow me to treat, within my system, all my employees the same,” he said. “It would provide me with a mechanism to continue to pay their wages and benefits for an approved duty-related injury.”
Once a State Police officer exhausts the 1,440 hours of injury leave, the officer would then get a combination of salary equivalent to one-third his or her pay, and workers’ comp for two-thirds, essentially providing a full salary from which the officer makes the normal insurance contribution. Because the officer is technically not working, PERA credits toward retirement are not accruing.