Posted by: Robert Wisniewski on Sep 16, 2020

Contributed by the Law Offices of Robert E. Wisniewski

Being injured on the job is a pain—in more ways than one. Not only are you suffering from an injury that will likely keep you from being able to perform your normal work duties, but you also have to go through the hassle of filing for workers’ compensation. 

A hassle yes, but easy enough, right?

Well, that might not be the case if you’re employed by certain groups, including one of the country’s more than 560 Native American tribes.


[H2] Native American sovereignty and workers’ comp

Recognized Native American tribes are governed as sovereign nations, which means that they are a distinct nation that exists outside of the country as a whole. They are able to both manage their own affairs and control their destinies. There are 21 federally recognized Native tribes in Arizona today.

As it pertains to workers’ compensation laws, recognized Native American tribes are immune from having to comply with state workers’ compensation regulations. That said, the recognized tribes traditionally have taken 1 of 3 approaches to workers’ compensation.

  1. Utilization of their own tort system rather than formulating their own workers’ compensation laws
  2. Tribal election of the state’s workers’ compensation system
  3. Creation of the tribe’s own workers’ compensation commission

Tribes that aren’t officially recognized by the federal government aren’t protected by sovereign rules and are subject to their state’s workers’ compensation rules.


[H2] Specific workers’ compensation rules

Since tribal sovereignty only occurs within the geographical boundaries of their reservation, there are instances where confusion can arise as to which party is responsible for workers’ comp coverage. For example, legal challenges may arise if:

  • The Native American employer or private business owner (operating a business within reservation boundaries) employs non-Native workers
  • The Native American employer and employee works outside the reservation’s geographical boundaries
  • The tribe’s business is located outside the reservation’s geographical boundaries

There is no strict guideline for determining how state and tribal sovereignty should be split when it comes to workers’ compensation laws. Generalized guidelines, however, go as follows:

  • Tribe employer and Native American employee. If the work happens outside the reservation, the employer should have state workers’ comp insurance to protect the business. This is better than facing the legal costs of trying to decipher whether the tribe or state’s laws apply to an injury.
  • Non-Native American employer or private Native American employee working within the boundaries of a reservation. The employer could face both state and tribal workers’ compensation laws. Typically, the employee and employer both submit claims to the state’s system.
  • Non-Native American employees working on a reservation. The outcome of this scenario can vary. However, some states have come to agreements with tribes as to who handles workers’ comp cases.


[H2] Arizona’s Native American nations

There are 21 federally-recognized Native American tribes currently residing in the state of Arizona. The largest by far (and the largest in the country) is the Navajo Nation, whose land is roughly the size of West Virginia and stretches into both Utah and New Mexico.

With 26 active Native-owned casinos in Arizona (owned by 16 different tribes), there are many workers’ compensation claims filed on behalf of tribe employees. In addition to casinos, there are many Native American-owned businesses and government officials employed by the various tribes.

For example, in October 2019, the Navajo Nation suffered a tragedy. A 22-year veteran of the Navajo Police Department, Sergeant Lamar Martin, experienced a medical emergency and succumbed to his condition in November 2019. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey recognized his service by ordering all flags in the state to be lowered to half-staff.

Regardless of your employer, if you’re injured on the job, it is important to notify your direct supervisor immediately. Then, you should take the proper steps to ensure that you receive the treatment and compensation you deserve by consulting an experienced work injury lawyer near you.

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