SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Farm and ranch laborers in New Mexico are gaining workers' compensation protections for job-related injuries because of recent state court decisions, according to a legal advocacy group.
The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty on Tuesday applauded a ruling by the state Court of Appeals (http://bit.ly/1bu2SXM ) directing the Workers' Compensation Administration to follow an Albuquerque judge's ruling in favor of agricultural workers.
A state district court judge in 2011 declared unconstitutional a state law provision that excluded laborers at farms, ranches and dairies from workers' compensation coverage for back wages and medical expenses for injuries on the job.
The Court of Appeals didn't directly decide the constitutional question in its decision last month, but said the workers' compensation enforcement agency is bound by the Albuquerque judge's ruling because it didn't appeal the constitutional issue. The agency's appeal had focused on legal procedural matters.
Efforts have failed in the Legislature over the years to change state law to require workers' compensation coverage for agricultural laborers in New Mexico. Some large agricultural producing states, such as California, Arizona and Colorado, provide those protections, according to the legal advocacy group that filed the lawsuit challenging the workers' compensation exclusion in New Mexico.
"This decision should be a wake-up call to New Mexicans. The working poor in our state are too often the victims of discrimination and abuse," said Maria Martinez Sanchez, an attorney for the Center on Law and Poverty.
The Workers' Compensation Administration isn't planning to challenge the Court of Appeals decision, but spokesman Van Cravens said the agency is trying to sort out the effects of the ruling. He said there are questions of whether the Albuquerque judge's ruling will be binding on other district courts across New Mexico.
The agency is based in Albuquerque and has administrative law judges that resolve disputed claims for medical expenses and back wages for injured or disabled workers. State law requires employers to have workers' compensation insurance coverage.
"We are still in the process of trying to figure out how we are going to follow this ruling," said Cravens. "We're not going to go against the court ruling. We have to follow the law."
Gail Evens, legal director at the law center, said, "While this ruling confirms that New Mexico agricultural workers are eligible for workers' compensation, it remains to be seen whether the Workers' Compensation Administration will finally begin enforcing the law to correct this long standing injustice. If they do not, they will be flagrantly violating the law of our state and prolonging unfair treatment of our poorest workers."
Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP