Their Day in Court: Obtaining Justice for New Mexico’s Poorest Workers

Gail Evans, Legal Director NM Ctr. on Law & Poverty

Gail Evans, Legal Director
NM Ctr. on Law & Poverty

Robert was attacked by a bull while working at the dairy where he had been employed for seven years. His injuries left him permanently disabled. He had no health insurance and no workers’ compensation. In almost constant pain, he could not work. Although his wife began working three jobs, they still lost their home. Two years later, the strain broke up their family. Robert became homeless and estranged from his children.

Robert’s story (and we’ve changed his name to preserve his privacy) is a typical one for many of New Mexico’s agricultural laborers – some of the hardest working and poorest workers in the country – working 10 to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, at dangerous jobs for very low pay. New Mexico’s field laborers earn a meager average of only $8,978 a year—much less than the national average of $17,500 to $19,999. In addition, roughly one-fifth of all agricultural workers are injured, become sick, or die from work-related accidents, pesticide exposure, dehydration, or other incidents at work.

Until recently, New Mexico’s impoverished farm, ranch and dairy workers were left without any resources to help them recover from illnesses or injuries sustained while working. This is because agriculture was the only industry excluded from the protections of the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act.

This exclusion caused overwhelming misery and suffering. Without the basic protections of the workers’ compensation system, injured agricultural workers, like Robert, and their families frequently sank even deeper into hunger and poverty.

Inspired by stories like Robert’s, the NM Center on Law and Poverty set out to end the statutory exclusion of agricultural laborers from the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act. With the support of the Impact Fund and other private foundations, the Center filed an equal protection lawsuit in New Mexico District Court in 2009. After two years of litigation, we won a ruling that excluding agricultural laborers from mandatory workers’ compensation coverage, when other employees have the right to coverage, is a violation of the equal protection clause of the New Mexico Constitution.

Even after we won our lawsuit, the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration continued to rely on the unconstitutional exclusion to dismiss the workers’ compensation claims of injured farm and dairy workers. We appealed those cases, and in June of 2015, the NM Court of Appeals issued a unanimous decision that the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from workers’ compensation is not “rationally related to a legitimate state interest,” and is, therefore, unconstitutional.

The New Mexico Supreme Court recently accepted the case, and we are preparing for our day in court.

Update 08.08.16: 

New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, is celebrating a big win!

Center attorneys presented oral argument on the workers’ compensation case Noe Rodriguez v. Brand West Dairy before the New Mexico Supreme Court in April 2016. On June 30th, the Court issued its opinion finding that the exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from the Workers’ Compensation Act “is nothing more than arbitrary discrimination and, as such, it is forbidden by our Constitution.” This is a major victory for the 15,000 farm and ranch laborers who will now benefit from the protections of workers’ compensation while on-the-job in New Mexico.

Reacting to the decision the Center’s Legal Director Gail Evans remarked, “We are thrilled that New Mexico’s farm and ranch laborers have the same right to workers’ compensation as all other workers in our state.”