"In short, denying same-sex couples access to death benefits under the workers’ compensation statute does not bear a fair and substantial relationship to the purposes of the act as identified in Ranney," the Supreme Court of Alaska said in an opinion this week concerning the provision of death benefits to the same-sex partner of a woman who was murdered at her workplace in 2011 even though they weren't married.
In 2005 the court rejected an award to an opposite-sex couple that was not married in Ranney v. Whitewater Engineering.
In this most recent case, Harris v. Millennium Hotel, the court pointed out that opposite-sex couples are permitted to marry under Alaska law, but same-sex couples are not.
Section 25.05.013 of Alaska’s statutes provides that “a same-sex relationship may not be recognized by the state as being entitled to the benefits of marriage.” But, the Supreme Court pulled from precedent opinions that said that the state’s workers’ compensation act used marriage as “an adequate proxy for the more particularized inquiry concerning whether a relationship is serious enough or a partner is sufficiently dependent to justify awarding benefits.”
Because same-sex couples have no access to that proxy, the court ruled that such an individualized inquiry would be needed in cases involving death benefits.
Of course there are going to be critics who will claim such rulings unnecessarily increase the costs of workers' compensation, but the court seemed to weigh that in its analysis as to "fair and substantial relationship," noting the minority statistics of the affected population.
|Bowzer's neither fair nor reasonable...|
Forget about gay rights - this case isn't about that in my opinion. Whether execution of the state's workers' compensation act bears a "fair and substantial relationship" to the purposes of that act is a BIG question and goes way beyond gay rights.
Yesterday I noted that a few Florida cases were challenging that state's workers' compensation statutes on the grounds that over time, due to many changes in the law, the constitutionality of 440.11 (Florida's work comp title) has eroded.
The same basic argument, albeit in a more legal context, is being made there, 3800 flight miles away: whether operation of Florida's workers' compensation laws bear a fair and substantial relationship to the purposes of that act.
Obviously the plaintiffs in the Florida cases argue that it no longer does.
And the opponents to those Florida suits are going to argue that costs have to be kept in check, and that the legislature has done so with surgical excision of unnecessary components.
While Alaska's justices are not questioning the overall constitutionality of that state's system, they have in one very small part essentially said that it can not meet constitutional analysis.
Most state's workers' compensation acts have as a foundation the state constitution.
The state constitution defines, in a very broad sense, the social obligation.
The Supreme Court in Harris said that obligation is, “to ensure the quick, efficient, fair and predictable delivery of indemnity and medical benefits to injured workers at a reasonable cost to employers,” nearly identical to how I defined it yesterday.
Ask most employer representatives and they'll tell you that the laws fail their part of the bargain - reasonable cost.
And ask most employee representatives and they'll also say the system fails to deliver quick and predictable medical and income benefits.
If both constituencies are correct, then whatever legislative alterations has caused those failures to occur might be challenged along the Alaska Supreme Court's reasoning.
Are we moving into a new era in work comp? I can't tell that, but when both business and labor complain that they are failing to realize any value and that realization is translated into legal challenges, then inquiries into fair and reasonable relations (a subjective standard) get made...