The New Mexico Court of Appeals cleared the way for farm and ranch laborers to receive workers’ compensation benefits by declaring a decades-old provision in state law unconstitutional.
That provision, on the books since the 1930s, excludes those employees whose duties focus primarily on growing and harvesting crops, meat or dairy products. However, other workers in the industry are covered.
“There is nothing rational about a law that excludes from worker’s compensation benefits employees who harvest crops from the field while providing benefits for the employees who sort and bag the very same crop,” the court said in a ruling issued this week.
The court also found that excluding farm and ranch laborers goes against the purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Act, which aims to balance the interests and rights of workers and employers.
The court said its ruling will apply to claims going back to March 30, 2012.
The state Workers’ Compensation Administration announced Thursday it intends to fully enforce the court’s decision, but it wasn’t immediately clear how many claims might be affected by the ruling.
There is no way to estimate the number of cases until claimants come forward, said Diana Sandoval-Tapia, a spokeswoman for the agency.
The court’s decision stems from two separate cases in which individual workers injured on the job at Brand West Dairy in Lovington and M.A. & Sons Chile Products in southern New Mexico had their claims dismissed. They filed separate appeals challenging the constitutionality of their exclusion as farm and ranch laborers.
Gail Evans, legal director for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, praised the decision, saying it marks a big step forward for the health and safety of the state’s estimated 15,000 agricultural workers.
“New Mexico does have a very long and rich history of being an agricultural state,” Evans said, “but the truth is the exemptions that our state has carved out so agricultural employers don’t have to treat their workers the same as other employers is nothing to be proud of.”
She pointed to differences in overtime pay for agricultural workers and noted that dairy workers aren’t entitled to the state minimum wage as other workers are.
Some farmers and ranchers have argued that they can’t afford the costs of workers’ compensation.
Agricultural industry groups said Thursday they were reviewing the ruling, and questioned whether it would take legislative action to change the law.
It wasn’t immediately clear if any of the parties planned to appeal.
In 2009, a state district judge also found the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from the workers’ compensation law to be unconstitutional. In that case, Evans said the court determined that covering those workers would amount to about $7 million, or less than 1 percent of the agricultural industry’s profits.
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