Their Day in Court: Obtaining Justice for New Mexico’s Poorest Workers0

Republished with permission by the Impact Fund. To see the original article, follow: http://impactfund.org/their-day-in-court-obtaining-justice-for-new-mexicos-poorest-workers/

Gail By Gail Evans, Legal Director of the New Mexico Center on Law & Poverty

Robert was attacked by a bull while working at the dairy where he had been employed for seven years. His injuries left him permanently disabled. He had no health insurance and no workers’ compensation. In almost constant pain, he could not work. Although his wife began working three jobs, they still lost their home. Two years later, the strain broke up their family. Robert became homeless and estranged from his children.

Robert’s story (and we’ve changed his name to preserve his privacy) is a typical one for many of New Mexico’s agricultural laborers – some of the hardest working and poorest workers in the country – working 10 to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, at dangerous jobs for very low pay. New Mexico’s field laborers earn a meager average of only $8,978 a year—much less than the national average of $17,500 to $19,999. In addition, roughly one-fifth of all agricultural workers are injured, become sick, or die from work-related accidents, pesticide exposure, dehydration, or other incidents at work.

Until recently, New Mexico’s impoverished farm, ranch and dairy workers were left without any resources to help them recover from illnesses or injuries sustained while working. This is because agriculture was the only industry excluded from the protections of the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act.

This exclusion caused overwhelming misery and suffering. Without the basic protections of the workers’ compensation system, injured agricultural workers, like Robert, and their families frequently sank even deeper into hunger and poverty.
Inspired by stories like Robert’s, the NM Center on Law and Poverty set out to end the statutory exclusion of agricultural laborers from the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act. With the support of the Impact Fund and other private foundations, the Center filed an equal protection lawsuit in New Mexico District Court in 2009. After two years of litigation, we won a ruling that excluding agricultural laborers from mandatory workers’ compensation coverage, when other employees have the right to coverage, is a violation of the equal protection clause of the New Mexico Constitution.

Even after we won our lawsuit, the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration continued to rely on the unconstitutional exclusion to dismiss the workers’ compensation claims of injured farm and dairy workers. We appealed those cases, and in June of 2015, the NM Court of Appeals issued a unanimous decision that the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from workers’ compensation is not “rationally related to a legitimate state interest,” and is, therefore, unconstitutional.

The New Mexico Supreme Court recently accepted the case, and we are preparing for our day in court.

In 2009, the Impact Fund made a grant of $12,500 to New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty so that the case, Griego v. New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration could move forward.

The Impact Fund awards grants to nonprofit legal organizations, private attorneys, and small law firms who seek to advance justice in the areas of civil and human rights, environmental justice, and poverty law by funding public interest litigation that will potentially benefit a large number of people, lead to significant law reform, or raise public consciousness. For more information visit: www.impactfund.org.

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