Wednesday, August 26, 2009

State sued for not providing farmworker worker compensation

The state of New Mexico is being sued by a group of non-profit organizations and one injured agricultural worker for not providing workers compensation to farm and ranch laborers in the state.

The group maintains that the exclusion of these workers from workers compensation coverage violates the equal protection clause of the New Mexico State Constitution.

At a press conference yesterday, the group was joined by Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farmworkers of America.

Huerta said it was time for New Mexico to “get into the 21st century.”

Over thirty other states have extended such benefits to farmworkers, she said, and “it’s time that the people who feed us, who put the food on our plate, get the justice they deserve.”

Huerta also noted that the extension of workers compensation, which is funded by employers, would provide an incentive to farm and ranch owners to make the working environment safer.

One of the plaintiffs in the suit is Joe Griego, a dairy worker who worked as a milker for 15 years. He was recently attacked while working at a dairy in Los Lunas by a bull, which resulted in crushed ribs and injuries to his spinal cord. According to a statement, he’s been in constant pain since then and unable to work. The medical bills and lost wages “have decimated the Griego’s ability to make ends meet,” the statement says. His wife has taken a second job and the family receives public assistance.

During the last legislative session, state Rep. Antonio Lujan, D-Las Cruces, sponsored a bill to extend such benefits to farmworkers. But the proposal died.

According to a handout at the press conference, that bill included a provision to exempt small farms and ranches, so that only the large enterprises would be affected. This would have resulted in 11 percent of the farms and ranches in the state being affected, which employ 89 percent of the workers in the sector.

John Martinez, executive director of one of the plaintiff organizations — HELP, New Mexico, said at the press conference that the current law is “antiquated” because the majority of farmworkers in New Mexico work for large operations, not “mom and pops.”

“Whether you work for Intel, state government, or pick chiles as the sun goes down,” he said, “[you should be covered], the law is antiquated and must be changed.”

Griego is joined in the lawsuit by the organizations HELP-New Mexico, Inc., and Sin Fronteras Organizing Project. The plaintiffs are represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, the Sargent Shriver National Poverty Law Center, and National Center for Social and Economic Justice.

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