Winning Workers’ Compensation Protections for Farm, Ranch and Dairy Laborers

New Mexico’s agricultural workers perform extremely difficult jobs. They are some of the poorest employees in the state, frequently earning even less than the minimum wage. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), agriculture ranks among our nation’s most hazardous industries. People employed in this industry work with heavy machinery, large and unpredictable animals, and perform repetitive motions throughout the work day. According to NIOSH, each day an average 167 U.S. farmworkers suffer an injury that results in lost work time.

In spite of the documented dangers associated with agricultural work, for decades our state’s impoverished farm, ranch, and dairy workers were left without critical financial and healthcare protections when injured on the job. Agriculture was the only industry excluded from the protections of the NM Workers’ Compensation Act. Without this important coverage, injured agricultural workers and their families frequently sank even deeper into hunger and poverty.

Several years ago, the NM Center on Law and Poverty set out to end the statutory exclusion of agricultural laborers from the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act. We filed and won an equal protection lawsuit in New Mexico District Court. The court ruled 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.

However, 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 the cases of two such workers to the NM Court of Appeals. In June of 2015, that court 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.

On June 30, 2016, the New Mexico Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ constitutional ruling. The Court said that the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from workers’ compensation “is nothing more than arbitrary discrimination and, as such, it is forbidden by our Constitution.”

Since the New Mexico Supreme Court’s ruling, we have been working with community partners to ensure agricultural employees know about and can exercise their right to receive workers’ compensation. Please contact us if you have questions about the constitutional rulings or need assistance with a farmworker workers’ compensation issue.

A detailed history of our workers’ compensation litigation and advocacy from 2009 through the present is available at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law Clearinghouse Community. Read it here.

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