Down and out

 

Joe Griego hasn't worked in nine months. He hasn't been able to do much since a bull crushed his ribs and damaged his spinal cord while he was on the clock at a New Mexico dairy.

He hasn't been sitting around milking workers' compensation checks while he recovers, either. In fact, Griego's had little help paying off more than $30,000 in medical bills because New Mexico's workers' comp law doesn’t mandate coverage for farm workers—an injustice a lawsuit filed against the state this week on Griego’s behalf intends to right.

The complaint contends that the exclusion violates farm workers' rights to equal protection under the New Mexico Constitution, and shines another spotlight on the vulnerabilities of the West’s agricultural workforce, covered in HCN’s recent feature, The Dark Side of Dairies

Griego's employer hasn't totally abandoned him, according to Maria Martinez, a staff attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which filed the suit. The dairy's insurance covered $5,000 of Griego's medical bills, and he garnered $1,800 in lost wages, a fraction of what he would have earned had he been working.

From an economic standpoint, New Mexico’s agricultural workers are particularly at-risk. Martinez says the average seasonal field worker in New Mexico makes between $6,000 and $7,000 a year, and the average dairy worker $18,000.

When you’re living at that level of poverty, she says, even seemingly minor repetitive motion injuries or one broken bone can have major consequences. “It’s not just you can’t pay your medical bills,” Martinez said, “you’re probably not going to eat.”

New Mexico’s first workers’ comp law was passed in 1917. Back then, Martinez says, most farms were family-run operations. “The theory was that families are going to take care of their own, whether or not they have insurance.”

That’s one guess at the reasoning behind exempting farms from the state’s workers’ comp law. “The other theory,” Martinez said, “is that it’s always been a type of discrimination” against a workforce that’s predominantly Mexican or Mexican-American.

The litigation comes after two attempts to reform the law failed at the legislature, first in 2007 and again this year. Farm and ranch laborers and “private domestic servants” are the only groups not provided mandatory coverage by the law.

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