Sunday, January 8, 2012

NM Case Makes Clear Work Comp Can't Discriminate Arbitrarily

Workers' compensation is a creature of statute. We're constantly reminded of that. But even though statutorily created, rules of fair play and application still apply - in other words the laws of any particular state must still meet constitutional standards.

In New Mexico a court ruled that a statute enacted in 1917 that excludes farm and agricultural workers from the New Mexico Workers' Compensation Act is unconstitutional.

New Mexico 2nd Judicial District Judge Valerie Huling said Dec. 27 in an opinion in Griego et al. v. New Mexico Workers' Compensation Administration that agriculture is the only industry allowed to shift the burden of injured workers onto taxpayers by not providing workers' compensation coverage.

The distinction used to define who is exempt and who is not exempt comes down to whether the worker is directly involved in harvesting crops or working with animals. For example, a worker picking onions on a farm would be excluded from coverage, but a person who is packing those same onions inside a building on the same farm would be covered by the Act.

The court found this distinction arbitrary and thus unconstitutional.

"Although the legislative intent of the farm and ranch exclusion, protection of the agricultural industry, is a legitimate goal, the exclusion is an arbitrary classification plainly at odds with the articulated purposes of the Act," Huling wrote.

This all came about when three dairy workers filed the lawsuit in 2009, after legislation failed that would have eliminated the farm and ranch workers' exemption from the Workers' Compensation Act. Similar legislation failed in 2007.

The three had worked as farm and ranch laborers for dairies and had received injuries in the course and scope of their employments. They sought workers' compensation benefits but the cases were dismissed under the 1917 law.

Judge Huling, finding the distinction between farm workers and dairy workers capricious and arbitrary, took on big ag business in the state noting in her opinion that the agricultural industry has reported average profits of $667 million over the past eight years, yet eliminating the exclusion would require coverage for about 10,000 workers, and the cost of providing workers' compensation insurance to the additional employees would be between $5 million and $7 million, less than 1% of annual profits.

Gail Evans, legal director for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the workers and told WorkCompCentral that this conclusion was important because it stands in sharp contrast to what lobbyists for the agricultural industry told lawmakers in 2009.

"The fact that this will cost less than 1% of profits, that fact was not presented to the Legislature," she said. "The agricultural lobby presented incorrect information at the Legislature that it would cost $90 million."

The Workers' Compensation Administration argued what I consider to be an irrational point, and one that is largely moot after 100 years: that many agricultural workers are seasonal and earn varying wages working for multiple employers. The administration said it would be difficult to trace an injury to work performed for a specific employer, demonstrating that agricultural workers present challenges to the efficient administration of the system.

Lots of other states have been dealing with this issue, as I said, for nearly 100 years. New Mexico certainly has many models to choose from to comply with the court's ruling. The administration's argument lacks substance.workers compensation, work comp, injured worker 


  1. David, you write
    "The administration's argument lacks substance". I love that kind of understatement. The police might it difficult to enforce speed limits; they might therefore argue that speed limits should be abolished.