Exclusion of farm & ranch employees from workers’ comp is unconstitutional, says NM Court of Appeals

Section 52-1-6(A) of the New Mexico’s Workers’ Compensation Act excludes farm and ranch laborers from the benefits (and burdens) of workers’ compensation. This week, the Court of Appeals held that this exclusion violates the equal protection clause of the New Mexico Constitution in Rodriguez v. Brand West Dairy.

In an opinion by Judge Monica Zamora, the Court held that the exclusion is subject to rational basis scrutiny, the most deferential equal protection standard. The Court nevertheless held that the exclusion is unconstitutional.

First, the exclusion applies to some agricultural laborers but not others. In 1980, the Court of Appeals held that the exclusion does not apply to workers who process harvested crops for shipping. Another statute, 52-1-6.1, says that the exclusion does not apply to veterinarians. According to the Court, these differences mean the exclusion is without a rational basis.

Second, the Court rejected the State’s argument that it’s hard to administer the Act because agricultural workers are highly mobile, because the Act does “not exclude all transient or mobile workers from coverage.”

Third, the Court rejected the State’s argument that the agricultural industry operates on lower profit margins, thus justifying the exclusion, because the Act “is under-inclusive because it does not exclude all agricultural workers.”

Personally, I think the Act should be amended to include farm and ranch workers. During my high school and college summers, I spent a lot of time working on farms and cattle ranches, and it is hard, back-breaking, low-paid labor. Although I’m not familiar with the statistics, I suspect that farm and ranch workers probably have a high rate of workplace injury.

Nevertheless, and reluctantly, I have to say that Rodriguez isn’t very convincing.

The Court’s holding that 52-1-6(A) doesn’t apply to all agricultural workers is not based on anything the statute says, but rather on its own earlier holding that 52-1-6(A) doesn’t apply to those involved in processing crops. It seems strange that an appellate court should interpret a statute as creating classifications that are foreign to the statute’s language, and then declare that those classifications render the statute irrational. And even if that language was in the statute, it may be that the Legislature thought that those involved in processing agricultural products were more likely to be stable and non-migratory than those working out in the field.

As for 52-1-6.1, if the farm & ranch exclusion was based on the Legislature’s belief that the statute would be difficult to administer for migrant workers, it seems likely that veterinary employees aren’t migratory. Thus, 52-1-6.1 seems consistent with the justification offered for the exclusion, not inconsistent.

And finally, the exclusion isn’t “under-inclusive” because it does not apply to migratory workers in non-agricultural pursuits. If the Legislature believed that agricultural laborers are more likely to be migratory than workers in other industries, that would easily meet the rational basis test. Classifications under the rational basis test don’t have to be perfect.

Although I’m sympathetic with the result, this seems like a matter that is quintessentially within the realm of the Legislature. I think this opinion dilutes the rational basis test. If this result stands, I think we can expect more rational basis challenges to statutes in the future. I know I’ll be thinking of ways to do so myself!

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