New Mexico High Court to Consider Farm Laborer Workers’ Comp Question

February 22, 2016

The New Mexico Supreme Court plans to review a lower court ruling that cleared the way for farm and ranch laborers across the state to receive workers’ compensation benefits.

The justices issued a brief order suspending a ruling by the New Mexico Court of Appeals until they can hear oral arguments.

Attorneys with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty said Friday they plan to file a motion requesting the high court reconsider the stay.

“I think once the court understands the impact that this has on workers, I’m hopeful they’ll reverse that decision they made,” said Gail Evans, the center’s legal director. “We continue to work with dairy workers and field workers who’ve been injured at work, who’ve been left with no medical help and no monetary help to get them healthy and back to work.”

The appellate court issued an opinion last year that declared unconstitutional a decades-old provision in state law regarding farm and ranch laborers.

That provision, on the books since the 1930s, excluded those employees whose duties focus primarily on growing and harvesting crops, meat or dairy products from receiving benefits if injured on the job.

The appellate court found that excluding such laborers went against the purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Act.

“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 its ruling last June.

The opinion sparked concern among agricultural industry groups, and some farmers and ranchers argued they wouldn’t be able to afford the costs.

“New Mexico’s farm, ranch and dairy families appreciate the court’s action on this issue,” Chad Smith, CEO of New Mexico Farm & Livestock Bureau, said in a statement. “Their decision recognizes the care that food producers currently provide for their employees and eliminates the possibility of lawsuits that could have extended back for years.”

The appellate court decision stemmed 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.

At the time of the ruling, the Center on Law and Poverty had praised the decision saying it marked a big step forward for the health and safety of the state’s estimated 15,000 agricultural workers.

Evans said Friday that the state Workers Compensation Administration had just started to treat claims filed by the previously exempt laborers as if they were entitled to benefits. The Supreme Court’s order brought that to a halt.

It’s unclear how soon the court could hear oral arguments.

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