New Mexico Court Allows Agricultural Workers to Pursue Case Challenging Denial of Workers’ Compensation

In Griego v. New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Commission, the state trial court initially denied a motion to dismiss and ruled that a severely injured New Mexico farmworker and two groups that represent farm and ranch laborers may pursue their claim that the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from the state’s workers’ compensation program violates the state constitution’s equal protection clause.

On December 9, 2011, Second Judicial District Judge Valerie Huling issued a 19 page decision ruling that the exclusion of farm and ranch workers from workers’ compensation was unconstitutional. These were, the judge said, “the poorest of the working poor” – poorly educated and poorly paid, historically abused by employers, overwhelmingly noncitizens who were legally barred from organizing. The judge also found that eliminating the exclusion would have only a very minor impact on the industry’s annual profit.

On November 25, 2013, the New Mexico Court of Appeals (an intermediate appellate court) dismissed the State’s appeal.

At the time the case was filed, Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farmworkers with Cesar Chavez and continues to be a national figure in the farmworker movement, said:

“This is an injustice. Farm and ranch workers deserve the same workplace protections given to other laborers. This law is a relic of a past when discrimination against low-income workers was commonplace. Farmworkers work in grueling conditions to provide us with the food we eat every day and it is an injustice that they are treated so unfairly. We value hard work in this country. So why don’t we value the hard work of our farm and ranch workers?”

If the case is ultimately successful, thousands of agricultural workers, many of whom are recent immigrants will, for the first time, be able to access the workers’ compensation program if injured while at work.

The workers who had been injured as well as two organizations, Sin Fronteras Organizing Project and HELP-New Mexico, were represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, the law offices of Nancy L. Simmons, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, and NCLEJ.

See press release on the filing of the case.

See 2011 decision here.

See 2013 decision here.

Press Coverage

The One Thing Worse Than Big Dairy’s Abuse of Cows? Its Abuse of Workers In These Times, December 1, 2014

“In 2011, in a lawsuit brought by three dairy workers, a District Court judge declared the exemption unconstitutional. But New Mexico’s Workers’ Compensation Administration (WCA) appealed, arguing that the ruling only applied to the three workers named in the suit. The WCA website now says that farm and ranch employers are “strongly encouraged” to get worker’s comp and that several pending cases will clarify the law… Without workers’ comp, “either the worker doesn’t get medical care, they go into great debt, or they are so injured they have to go to the emergency room, and the taxpayer pays,” says Martínez Sánchez [co-counsel from the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty]. “As taxpayers, we’re subsidizing the agricultural industry.”