It's being called a landmark decision by New Mexico's Supreme Court Justices, a 3-1 decision last week (June 30, 2016) that effectively nullifies a long standing law enacted by the state lawmakers nearly 80 years ago that exempted many of New Mexico's farms and ranches from having to provide workers' compensation coverage to some farm workers.
Calling the law discriminatory and unconstitutional, the Court's decision is expected to make state workers' compensation insurance available to an estimated 20,000 uninsured farm laborers across the state, but it comes with a price tag to farm and ranch owners, an expense one dissenting justice says could encourage some farmers to grow only crops that can be harvested mechanically.
The ruling follows challenges to the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act by two farm laborers who were injured on the job and denied benefits in recent years in separate incidents.
In one case, a green chile laborer in Doña Ana County broke her wrist after slipping on wet ground three years ago. Maria Angelica Aguirre, a chile picker who worked for M.A. & Sons Chili Products, filed a claim with the New Mexico Workers Compensation Commission after the injury but was denied benefits because of an exemption passed by the New Mexico legislature in 1939.
According to that law, owners of farms and ranches who employ less than four employees or who hire seasonal workers are not required to participate in the state's workers compensation insurance program.
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Supporters of the law have long argued the exemption protected small farm and ranch owners who produce marginal profits because of fluctuating food prices or because, as in the case of dairies, products are sold in markets that have government-set price controls.
In the other case presented before the State Supreme Court, a dairy worker was denied a workers' compensation claim after being butted in the head by a cow, knocking him to a concrete floor where he suffered a brain injury.
Law Deemed Unconstitutional
Attorneys from the New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty, an Albuquerque nonprofit that represented the two workers in the case, said the decades-old state law requires employers to provide workers compensation coverage for laborers who process and package agricultural products but not for laborers who harvest those products in the field, and such a practice is unconstitutional, a position all but one of the Court's justices agreed upon.
“We conclude that there is nothing to distinguish farm and ranch laborers from other agricultural employees, and other justifications related to unique features of agribusiness bear no rational relationship to the Act’s distinction between these groups,” said the opinion written by Justice Edward Chavez.
“This is nothing more than arbitrary discrimination and, as such, it is forbidden by our Constitution. Accordingly, we hold that the farm and ranch laborer exclusion contained in the Workers’ Compensation Law is unconstitutional. The Legislature is at liberty to offer economic advantages to the agricultural industry, but it may not do so at the sole expense of the farm and ranch laborer while protecting all other agricultural workers.”
The only dissenting Justice, Judith Nakamura, filed an opinion in which she said the court was ignoring the Legislature’s intention and ignoring the separation of powers doctrine.
“This court may not contort these areas of law to nullify validly enacted legislation simply because we happen to believe that a statute is unfair or that its unfairness outweighs any other consideration that bears on the Legislature’s decision,” her dissent stated.
Decision Cited as ‘Burdensome’ to Small Farms and Ranches
She argued that the Court's ruling would be burdensome to small farms and ranches and would cost them a great deal to provide workers compensation coverage they had been exempt from providing in the past, especially considering lower food prices and escalating input costs across the agricultural industry.
Chad Smith, New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, agreed the court’s decision will create hardships for farm and ranch operators across New Mexico.
“This will be yet another financial blow to New Mexico’s farm, ranch and dairy families who are already stretched thin by the lagging economy and over-regulation issues,” he said.
But Gail Evans, legal director at the New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty, argued that all farm workers deserved to be treated equally and fairly, and that exempting workers' compensation coverage for some workers represents a discriminatory practice.
“Under the old law, they would not have been entitled to anything,” she said. “We are thrilled that New Mexico’s farm and ranch laborers (now) have the same right to workers’ compensation as all other workers in our state.”