The New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled in June that excluding field and ranch workers from workers’ comp protection is unconstitutional. It was the second victory for New Mexico’s farmworkers in less than a year – and that’s big news in a low-wage sector made up primarily of immigrant workers, where victories tend to be few and far between.
The first victory came last August when farmworkers finally started getting paid the correct minimum wage. Farmworkers were routinely, and incorrectly, paid the federal minimum when they were entitled to the New Mexican minimum wage, which is 25 cents per hour higher. It only amounts to $8 or $10 a week, but it is significant for these workers, who are among the poorest in the United States.
And now, after six years of legal battles, the state Court of Appeals has upheld a District Court ruling that New Mexico’s farmworkers are not to be excluded from workers’ comp protection.
Farm work is among the most dangerous jobs in the United States, consistently ranking in the top 10 for injuries and death. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that 167 agricultural workers are injured every day. Despite this, only 12 states require full workers’ comp for farmworkers (13 now, including New Mexico); it’s optional in 16 states and required but limited in 21 others. Until the Court of Appeals’ decision, workers’ comp wasn’t required for New Mexico’s field workers or for ranch employees who worked directly with animals. That meant that on a dairy, for example, truck drivers and bookkeepers were covered, but milkers and workers moving the cows weren’t.
As In These Times reported in December 2014, on-the-job injuries are the rule, not the exception, in New Mexico’s dairy industry, and the lack of workers’ comp left some workers in dire economic straits:
Working with large animals poses a real risk of injury. In 2012, attorney Tess Wilkes was part of a team at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP) that interviewed about 60 workers from various dairies in the state. Almost 80 percent of the workers said they had never received any safety training.
Most of the cows are docile, but not all. “The younger ones are dangerous,” says Antonio Jiménez, who worked in a dairy outside of Roswell during high school. “They don’t know how to be milked and [they] kick. Sometimes the ones that have just given birth [are dangerous], too.” The NMCLP survey found that 53 percent of the workers interviewed had been injured on the job, often more than once, and sometimes seriously.
In March, Matías Soto was working as a milker at a dairy in southeastern New Mexico. Somehow, a bull had gotten mixed in with the cows and stuck in one of the milking parlor gates. As Soto was trying to free the bull, he says, “It lowered its head and attacked me, lifting me 6 or 7 feet in the air. I hit my head on the concrete floor.” His skull fractured. But, he says, he wasn’t taken to the ER in Artesia, about 40 miles away, for three hours. He then had to be airlifted to a hospital capable of handling his injury. The cost of the helicopter alone was more than $60,000, and Soto’s hospital bills were in “the tens of thousands of dollars,” says María Martínez Sánchez, a former attorney at the NMCLP who worked with Soto. And the dairy had no workers’ compensation insurance.
Its medical insurance covered Soto’s medical bills, but not all of the helicopter costs. Instead, says Martínez Sánchez, Soto went into debt, borrowing from friends and relatives, although he eventually received a small amount of money in a settlement with the dairy.
In 2009 NMCLP filed suit challenging the exclusion on behalf of three injured workers who had been denied workers’ comp based solely on the exclusion. Attorneys from the organization argued that excluding farm and ranch workers violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause.
In 2011, 2nd District Court Judge Valerie Huling ruled that the exclusion is, in fact, unconstitutional. The New Mexico Workers’ Comp Administration (WCA) appealed that decision, stating that the District Court had overstepped its jurisdiction. The WCA lost that appeal, and the three workers in the lawsuit had their cases heard and were awarded workers’ comp benefits. But the WCA argued that the District Court ruling applied only to those three workers. Employers took that as a cue to continue routinely denying coverage to all other farmworkers.
In February of this year, NMCLP attorney Tim Davis challenged that interpretation in a suit on behalf of two injured workers who had been denied workers’ comp benefits. Noe Rodriguez suffered a head injury when he was attacked by a bull at the dairy farm at which he worked and Maria Angélica Aguierre broke her arm when she slipped and fell in a chile field. The New Mexico Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the District Court’s ruling that the exclusion was unconstitutional . The court stated, “Our review of the history of workers’ compensation statutes back to 1929 has not revealed an articulable purpose for the exclusion” and that the exclusion was “without purpose or reason and leads to absurd results.”
The ruling doesn’t mean that Rodriquez and Aguierre will automatically receive workers’ comp benefits, bu it means that their claims, and the claims of other injured farmworkers, can now be heard.
Maria Martínez Sánchez, one of the lead attorneys on the 2009 case, says she is “very happy” with the appellate opinion. “This ruling finally tells agricultural employers that they … must care for their workers in the same way all other employers in New Mexico are required to do,” she says.
While advocates are heartened by the Court of Appeals ruling, they’re also realistic. Farmworkers in New Mexico and across the United States continue to work under harsh conditions for little pay. The majority of states don’t offer farmworkers full workers’ comp benefits; most deny them overtime pay and the right to collective bargaining. Wage theft is rampant, as is sexual harassment and abuse. As Martínez Sánchez says, “There’s still much work to be done.”