Table of Contents
- Historic victory for New Mexican agricultural workers! The Center on Law and Poverty, together with farm and dairy workers, win the right to workers’ compensation for all agricultural workers in New Mexico. Judge rules that excluding agricultural workers from workers’ compensation is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the New Mexico Constitution. Read the judge’s opinion here.
- Since our victory in the workers’ compensation case, we have successfully litigated several dairy worker workers’ compensation claims. These dairy workers, whose employers did not have workers’ compensation insurance, were provided with the benefits they deserve as New Mexican workers. We are also actively working on several other similar cases.
- Read an in-depth article on the agricultural industry and New Mexico’s history of denying workers’’ compensation to agricultural workers, 100 Years of No Worker’s Comp. (December 2011)
- Watch the short documentary about what it is like to be an injured agricultural worker that is not covered by workers’ compensation: “Uncovered: New Mexico’s Farm Workers”
New Mexico is a state that greatly values its agricultural roots. Few people realize that this important sector of New Mexico’s economy thrives on the backs of people who live in stark poverty – New Mexico’s agricultural workers. There are more than 10,000 agricultural workers in our state, all of whom labor under harsh conditions in dangerous jobs while being paid a pittance. They are widely excluded from many labor laws available to most other workers. Many of New Mexico’s agricultural workers are field workers and are some of the poorest wage earners in the nation, earning average annual incomes of $7,000. Our dairy and cattle workers earn approximately $18,000 per year. The Center on Law and Poverty is working to improve the public policies and conditions under which agricultural workers labor.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, agriculture is one of the most dangerous occupations in the nation. Field workers suffer dehydration, repetitive stress injuries, farm equipment accidents and exposure to pesticides. Dairy workers are constantly exposed to the inherent dangers of working with large, dangerous animals and dairy machinery, often sustaining serious injuries. The dangers and hard work take their toll.
Despite the important role that farm, dairy and ranch workers play in our state economy and the high incidence of illness and injury they experience while doing so, they have been intentionally excluded from protections offered to other workers under the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act. Workers’ compensation is an insurance that covers injuries incurred by workers on-the-job. It pays for a percentage of a worker’s lost wages and all medical bills stemming from the injury.
Currently, the New Mexico’s Workers’ Compensation Act mandates that all employers with three or more employees purchase workers’ compensation insurance for those employees. Until very recently, the only exceptions to this rule were for agricultural workers and private domestic servants. If agricultural workers were hurt on the job, they were not entitled to the health care, disability or rehabilitation benefits that help other workers get back on their feet after an on-the-job injury. Some responsible farmers and ranchers voluntarily provided workers’ compensation coverage for their employees. Some offered workers limited care under a limited liability policy. More often than not, these policies did not cover all of the medical expenses or lost wages.
Most agricultural workers by far, however, were left to fend for themselves. Without insurance and too poor to pay for care on their own, these individuals worked through their injuries when they were able to. When they were not, they lost their income and incurred unmanageable medical debt and permanent physical damage. The farm and ranch laborer exclusion to the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act has recently changed. After many years of work, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, along with several courageous farm and dairy workers have succeeded in gaining workers’ compensation protections for New Mexico’s agricultural workers. Read on to learn how this great victory was achieved.
Workers’ Compensation Legislative Work
In the 2009 legislative session, Representative Antonio Lujan from Las Cruces introduced a bill to amend the Workers’ Compensation Act to mandate that employers of agricultural workers be required to purchase workers’ compensation for their employees. The Center on Law and Poverty worked closely with Representative Lujan in his effort to pass the bill. We conducted extensive research, prepared informational materials for legislators, testified before committee hearings and organized a broad coalition of advocates, faith-based organizations, unions and policymakers that supported the legislation. Despite an immense amount of support from New Mexicans statewide, the bill failed due to great opposition by the agricultural industry.
Workers’ Compensation Litigation
In August of 2009, on behalf of New Mexico farm and dairy workers, the Center on Law and Poverty filed a lawsuit against the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration, charging that the exclusion of agricultural workers from the Workers’ Compensation Act violates the Equal Protection Clause of the New Mexico State Constitution. Sin Fronteras Organizing Project, HELP-New Mexico, and three dairy workers who were seriously injured on the job were plaintiffs in the case. The plaintiffs asserted that the exclusion unconstitutionally discriminated against farm and ranch laborers by excluding them from workers’ compensation protections – treating these workers differently than it treats other workers in the state. The National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the Sargent Shriver National Poverty Law Center and local attorney Nancy Simmons joined the Center on Law and Poverty in the lawsuit. Over one hundred people attended a press conference on the courthouse steps to support the filing of the lawsuit. A notable speaker at the press conference was Dolores Huerta, president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. Ms. Huerta was also the co-founder of the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez. View a copy of the complaint.
After over two years of litigation, in December 2012, state district court Judge Valerie Huling issued her ruling, declaring the exclusion of agricultural workers from mandatory workers’ compensation unconstitutional. View Judge Huling’s Opinion and Order here. According to this ruling, the employers of agricultural workers in New Mexico are now obligated to purchase workers’ compensation insurance for their employees. However, the Workers’ Compensation Administration is taking the position that the judge’s ruling does not control the WCA. The WCA is currently appealing the issue of whether or not a state district court has the jurisdiction to order the Workers’ Compensation Administration to process the plaintiffs’ claims for workers’ compensation without applying the unconstitutional farm and ranch labor exclusion. We believe the district court clearly has jurisdiction to do so and we will defend the victory in New Mexico’s appellate courts.
The Center on Law and Poverty continues to work with injured farm, ranch and dairy workers to ensure that they get the workers’ compensation benefits that they are entitled to. We have already successfully obtained workers’ compensation benefits for several dairy workers and are actively pursuing claims in several other cases. We also understand that more dairies are buying Workers Compensation insurance than before. Injured farm, ranch and dairy workers are encouraged to contact us if they desire assistance obtaining workers’ compensation for their on-the-job injuries.
The Center on Law and Poverty advocates for policies that provide enhanced protections for New Mexico’s agricultural workers. In addition, we are committed to ensuring that existing rights and protections for agricultural workers are being enforced by the governmental agencies responsible for doing so. We travel throughout the state and train farm workers on their rights regarding wages, health and safety, farm labor contractors, workers’ compensation and protection from pesticides. Unfortunately, farm, dairy and ranch workers continue to be excluded from a host of state and federal labor laws that protect most workers in our state and country. Under New Mexico law, many agricultural workers are excluded from the state minimum wage. Under federal laws, they are excluded from the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act, which gives workers the power to bargain collectively with their employer for fair and equal treatment. Furthermore, the federal Worker Protection Standard (the federal regulations that are designed to protect farm workers from exposure to pesticides) and the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, do not provide protections for those workers that are not seasonal or migratory (including dairy and cattle workers).
If you have questions about farm worker rights under these laws or are interested in a training, please contact María Martínez at email@example.com or (505) 255-2840.
- Guidebook for Farm Workers Who Work with Pesticides (English) (June 2012)
- Guía para Trabajadores Que Trabajan con Pesticidas (Español) (June 2012)
- El Acoso Sexual en el Trajado (Español) (June 2012)
- Información Sobre Seguro Social para Trabajadores Agrícolas (Español) (June 2012)
- New Mexico Farm Worker Labor Rights (May 2012)
- Derechos Laborales de Trabajadores Agricolas en Nuevo Mexico (May 2012)
Uncovered: New Mexico’s Farm Workers
This project is funded, in part, by The Public Welfare Foundation, The Con Alma Health Foundation, The Center for Civic Values, The McCune Charitable Foundation, and The Joseph C. and Esther Foster Foundation.