Tribal Casinos and the Framework of Workers’ Compensation

Michigan is home to several tribal nations, 12 of which are federally recognized. All 12 own and operate casinos, in addition to other economic and governmental endeavors. These casinos help local communities in a number of ways, including ushering in business and offering employment opportunities. Many of the employment opportunities come with premier benefits such as vacation and health insurance. However, one employee benefit that may be somewhat elusive for employees of tribal casinos is workers’ compensation.

Workers’ compensation is ordinarily a state mandated benefit provided at no cost to employees. However, tribes are not automatically subject to the state or federal law that governs workers’ compensation because they are sovereign nations and their sovereignty extends to their business entities. Similar to how states are sovereign from the laws of other states, so too are tribal nations. Tribes create, implement, and enforce their own laws subject to some federal restraints. The tribal courts act as the enforcement mechanism and generally have jurisdiction over casino matters.

Accordingly, workers’ compensation is a law considered to be outside of federal and state reach. Importantly however, this does not mean that casino employees are without a remedy if they are injured while working. First, a tribe may elect to take part in state workers’ compensation systems, as many tribes have done. A tribe may also enact their own workers’ compensation law. Finally, a tribe may elect to leave issues of compensable injury in the casino workplace to civil lawsuits; to the extent that a tribe has waived is immunity, such litigation would be initiated in tribal court.

There is no common approach among tribes in Michigan and, as a result, it is important for an employee to understand the system under which each tribally-run casino operates to determine how such matters are resolved and what options of recovery are available to them. Each method can provide unique circumstances, unlike the typical state-mandated approach understood by non-citizen employees. Such unique circumstances include the required use of the tribal judiciary or administrative body. Due to the prevalence and expected growth of this industry in Michigan, casino employees in particular are encouraged to reach a greater understanding of their employer in an effort to avoid confusion during a time when an injury occurs.

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