The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Farmers, ranchers hit with worker's compensation

 

June 25, 2015



Staff Writer

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The New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the exclusion of farm and ranch workers from the Workers’ Compensation Act is unconstitutional.

“We fail to see any real differences between farm and ranch laborers and all other workers in New Mexico that would justify the exclusion,” the court held. “Excluding farm and ranch laborers from workers’ compensation coverage directly controverts the purpose and evenhanded philosophy of the act by placing farm and ranch employers at an advantage and denying workers the benefits the act was intended to provide.”

According to information in the ruling, the courts review of the history of the workers compensation statutes back to 1929 “has not revealed an articulable purpose for the exclusion.”

According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture conducted in 2012, Curry County has 149 farms with a total of 1,226 hired farm laborers, and Roosevelt County has 154 farms with 1,022 hired farm laborers.

A press release from the organization that brought the suit, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, states farm and ranch laborers are among New Mexico’s lowest wage owners, and “it is very rare for these workers to have health insurance.”

“Finally, the men and women who pick our chile, milk our cows, and continue our tradition of being an agricultural state have the same rights to health care and lost wages as other workers in our state when they are injured doing this dangerous and important work,” said Gail Evans, the legal director for the NM Center on Law and Poverty.

But an expert in the dairy industry, listed as “the number one agricultural activity in the state with the greatest economic impact” by New Mexico State University, said the decision will have an impact on dairy farmers in the state.

“It’s going to cost the dairymen more money,” said Walter Bradley, the director of government relations for the Dairy Farmers of America.

Bradley said 100 percent of producers within the DFA have been buying private health insurance for employees to cover injuries.

“All of them have coverage of one kind or another,” Bradley said. “We have been taking care of employees.”

Bradley said the organization was not anticipating the ruling because a previous court of appeals ruled the exemption constitutional.

“We felt that this court of appeals would go along with their previous ruling, but obviously that’s not the case,” Bradley said. “And it does have an impact because workers comp rates in New Mexico are extremely high.”

“Workers comp is more expensive than private health insurance, mainly because of a benefit package for disability that is one of the highest in the nation,” Bradley continued. “We are like 700 weeks…compared to Oklahoma that has 150 weeks…That drives that rate sky high.”

Bradley said the organization has not yet made a decision on how to proceed from here, but “we do want to make sure our employees are properly covered and that we meet the law.”

 
 

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