Albuquerque Journal: NM high court hears case on workers’ comp for farm/ranch workers

Republished from the Albuquerque Journal. Click here to read the original article.

By Maggie Shepard / Journal Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28th, 2016 at 12:05am

On a small New Mexico dairy farm, an employee milking a cow does not have to be covered by workers’ compensation but the person’s supervisor, who might spend the workday in the same barn with the same animals, must be covered.

It’s a legal line that state Supreme Court justices hammered as they heard oral arguments Wednesday afternoon in a heated and possibly high-stakes case about a decades-old exemption in state law the allows farms and ranches with more than three employees to exempt laborers from workers’ compensation coverage.

A 2nd Judicial District Court judge and the Court of Appeals have ruled in one case that denying workers’ compensation to this type of farm and ranch worker is unconstitutional.

Dairy and ranch industry groups’ lawyers argued that forcing workers’ compensation coverage would cost farmers tens of millions of dollars, much of which they could not recoup from product sales, which usually are in markets that have government-set price controls.

When asked for the legal justification between the two groups of employees, like in the cow example, each of the industry lawyers arguing Wednesday struggled to find an answer that didn’t seem to anger the justices.

“It might save money by excluding certain workers, but is that a rational exclusion?” Chief Justice Charles Daniels asked the lead attorney representing the dairy and cattle industries.

Justices asked questions about how such an exemption could be considered constitutional.

Gail Evans, legal director for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, argued that it is not and asked the justices to uphold a lower court’s ruling as such. She said those exempted are the “most vulnerable” employees.

She also asked that the justices make any unconstitutional judgment work retroactively.

But lawyers from the state’s Workers’ Compensation Administration and Uninsured Employer’s Fund argued that would open a flood gate of cases and a bureaucratic nightmare. They asked that if necessary, a ruling apply only to future claims to not only avoid a mess of back claims but also so that industry businesses can be fully aware of any new coverage requirement.

The coverage exemption also applies to household servants and real estate salespeople.

After more than two hours of arguments from five lawyers – oral arguments usually only last about one hour – before a packed and overflowing audience, justices took the case into consideration. It is not clear when they will make a decision.

Farmworkers’ paths

Kalyn Finnell, a graduate student at the University of New Mexico in Latin American studies, created a project that traces the places and spaces of farmworkers of the past and present in the United States. Ms. Finnell writes:

“The objective of this project is to record the history of the structural inequalities under which farm laborers in the United States work. The farmworkers in the United States are an underrepresented population to whom the general population of the Unites States owes its daily nourishment. The goal of this particular mapping project was to relate stories that had not been told, through places.”

farmworker cropped 2

“The places recorded in this map include both sites of inequality and sites of empowerment. Some of those sites of empowerment include sites of protest, which demonstrate the active role that farm laborers themselves have played in obtaining workers’ rights. While places such as the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, Ben Archer Health Center and El Centro de los Trabajadores Agrícolas provide services for the empowerment of farmworkers, persisting inequalities must be highlighted for their recognition and eventual abolishment.”

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty is proud to be one of the places featured in her project. Check out Kalyn’s project at Tour Builder with Google Earth.

Court of Appeals Strikes Down Exclusion of Farmworkers from Workers’ Compensation

A new day dawns for agricultural workers in New Mexico! The state Court of Appeals just issued a decision that excluding farm and ranch workers from the Workers’ Compensation Act violates the equal protection clause of the state constitution.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty has been fighting for this decision since filing our original lawsuit in District Court in 2009. Although we previously won a positive ruling from the District Court Judge, the case has been in appeal for years. Now, the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration has stated that they intend to fully enforce the decision by requiring employers to provide coverage for farm and ranch laborers.

This is a huge victory for protecting the health, safety and economic security of New Mexico’s most hardworking and underpaid laborers.

Read the Press Release here: Press-release-Court-of-Appeals-strikes-down-exclusion-2015-06-25.
Read the Court’s Opinion here: Opinion-Court-of-Appeals-2015-06-22.