Group, worker suing state for workers compensation benefits

By Argen Duncan: PNT senior writer

New Mexico is hearing a debate over whether agriculture workers need to be included in the state-run workers compensation system.

A group of civil rights organizations is suing to have New Mexico agricultural workers included.

However, many in the agriculture industry have said their employees are already covered and costs would be damaging.

Under current law, agriculture workers and domestic servants don’t have to be covered by government workers compensation. An effort to change that in the last legislative session failed.

But several groups and an injured Los Lunas dairy worker are filing suit to try again.

“Farm labor is extremely hard and dangerous work,” said Carlos Marentes, director of lawsuit plaintiff Sin Fronteras Organizing Project, in a press release. “With no health insurance and very low wages, many of the men and women who work our dairies and ranches and harvest the food we eat have nowhere to turn when they are injured in the fields. Their families are devastated.”

According to Web site for the New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty, representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, 1 percent of New Mexico and West Texas farm workers have private health insurance.

On the other side, Roosevelt County wheat and beef producer Matt Rush said most farmers and ranchers provide insurance for employees and don’t need another government mandate.

The workers compensation task force the Legislature appointed gave the opinion the current system is working and the state shouldn’t mandate that agriculture participate in workers compensation, Rush said.

If producers didn’t offer health coverage or give employees money to buy their own policies, Rush said, workers would go elsewhere.

Walter Bradley, government and business affairs director for the Dairy Farmers of America in Clovis, said DFA polled New Mexico dairies. Of the 90 percent who responded, all have health insurance for their employees, mainly through private sources.

Bradley said dairies and farms having loans — as most do — are required by the bank to carry such coverage.

“The bottom line is that dairies and farms have coverage, and there’s no evidence to show that those costs should be raised,” Bradley said.

Joining the state workers compensation system would triple producers’ expenses, Bradley said.

Rush said he found estimates the move could increase production costs 50 percent to 60 percent.

“It would literally put a large portion of New Mexico agriculture out of business because the profit margins are so slim right now anyway,” he said.

Bradley said increasing production costs would raise the cost of food.

However, the press release from the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty said adding farm and ranch laborers to the workers compensation would cost about 1 percent of the industry’s annual profit, which was $821 million in 2008.

Rush expects 2009 profit margins to be significantly lower than last year because of low wholesale milk prices and a drop in corn and grain prices from last year.

Rush believes 2008 saw unusually large profits because the demand for ethanol led to high corn and grain prices.