The ruling in a landmark case ensures that all farm and ranch workers are to receive workers’ compensation for injuries sustained while on the job.
The case began in 2009, when three farm and ranch laborers for dairies in New Mexico suffered work-related injuries and were denied compensation under the statutory farm and laborer exclusion. In 2011, 2nd Judicial District Judge Valerie Huling ruled the statute, which denied nearly 10,000 workers compensation, to be unconstitutional.
If a worker has been injured on the job and his employer says he has no workers’ comp, he can file a claim with the Workers’ Compensation Administration. The claim will be reviewed and if it is proven that the employee was in fact hurt on the job and that the employer does not have workers’ compensation, the employee can receive compensation from the Workers’ Compensation Administration’s Uninsured Employers Fund. The fund supplies the worker with money to cover medical expenses and lost wages until he is able to return to work. The agency then goes after the employer to reimburse the fund, and assesses penalties for not having workers’ compensation coverage.
Gail Evans, legal director for the New Mexico Center of Law and Poverty, had a hand in that case and said the decision was long overdue. Since the ruling, she said that word has been spreading about the new law.
“What we’re finding is that more and more workers are learning that they have a right to workers’ compensation and are filing claims,” she said. “What we’re also finding is that the employers are aware of the change in the law, and we’re seeing more employers purchase coverage.”
Though coverage purchases continue to increase, Evans said it’s imperative that everyone continues spreading the word because the issue is essentially one that affects everyone.
“I think it’s really important that people know because farm workers are injured pretty often at work,” she said. “And if they don’t know they have a right to workers’ comp, then the farm worker either goes without health care, or the farm worker gets health care that is covered by the general public through charity health funds … rather than having the cost covered by employer.”
She added that for years, agricultural companies have been getting away with mistreating workers. Evans said that in New Mexico alone, there are 150 dairies, some of which are the largest dairies in the country, yet they weren’t paying their workers the state minimum wage rate or overtime and were not providing workers’ compensation. Companies were cutting costs under the guise of being small, family owned businesses that make a modest profit.
“They’ve managed to paint a picture of themselves, as being small ma and pa type operations,” Evans said. “People are not aware that these are actually large businesses and they can pay their workers and treat their workers as well as other businesses.”
Evans noted that the law has no distinction as to whether or not an individual must be a documented worker to receive compensation. Any worker who has been hurt on the job has the right to have his medical costs and lost wages paid, and should file a claim if these have been denied.