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NM Supreme Court: Ag workers entitled to Workers Comp protection

The state Supreme Court has ruled that a nearly 100-year-old provision in state law that allows agricultural employers to opt out of the workers compensation system is unconstitutional.

In an opinion issued Thursday, the court ruled the provision violated the Equal Protection Clause of the state Constitution. It noted that the provision allowed employers with more than three employees to opt out of coverage for farm and ranch laborers but not other agricultural workers, a distinction the court called “nothing more than arbitrary discrimination.”

“The Legislature is at liberty to offer economic advantages to the agricultural industry, but it may not do so at the sole expense of the farm and ranch laborer while protecting all other agricultural workers,” according to the opinion written by Justice Edward Chavez.

The ruling came in the case filed by Noe Rodriguez against Brand West Dairy, an uninsured employer, and the Uninsured Employers Fund, joined with a case filed by Maria Angelica Aguirre against M.A. and Sons Chili Products and the Food Industry Self Insurance Fund of New Mexico.

The Court of Appeals previously ruled in favor of the plaintiff in the Rodriguez case.

Dairy and ranch industry groups’ lawyers had argued that forcing workers’ compensation coverage would cost farmers tens of millions of dollars, much of which they could not recoup from product sales, which usually are in markets that have government-set price controls.

Chief Justice Charles Daniels and Justices Petra Jimenez Maes and Barbara Vigil concurred in the opinion released Thursday.

Justice Judith Nakamura dissented, saying the Legislature did have a rational basis for the exclusion, and so it was not unconstitutional.

“While I understand the unfairness that may be perceived in the treatment of laborers who work for farms and ranches electing exemption from the (Workers Compensation Act), I also understand the burden that may fall upon small New Mexico farms and ranches in having to incur regulatory costs more easily borne by their large competitors in the agricultural industry,” she wrote.

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