Georgia used to be one of 16 states that had enacted some sort of exemption to workers’ compensation coverage for farm or agricultural laborers. Now, it’s one of just 15 states, after the New Mexico Supreme Court handed down a ruling striking workers’ compensation exemptions for farms and ranches as unconstitutional.
The case is Rodriguez v. Brand West Dairy, and the decision casts uncertainty as to the future of the law in Georgia and other states. To be clear: This decision won’t immediately impact Georgia workers. Because each state is in charge of handling its own workers’ compensation system, a conflict between states on an issue like this isn’t likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Nonetheless, a ruling of this nature by a sister court is one that could open the door for a similar challenge here in Georgia.
According to court records, the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act, since its inception in 1917 through its most recent update in 2015, has never required employers to provide workers’ compensation to farm and ranch laborers. Three farm and ranch laborer workers appealed denial of their workers’ compensation injury claims on grounds state statute is illegal under the state’s equal protection clause. The statute specifies that in order to be legal, any discriminatory classifications in economic or social legislation have to be founded on some real difference of situation or condition that reasonably justifies a different rule for the class that suffers the discrimination.
One of the workers in this case was a chili picker who earned about $300 a week when she slipped in a field and broke her wrist. She filed a workers’ compensation claim, which was denied based on the aforementioned exemption. Another of the workers was employed as a herdsman and dairy worker, earning about $1,000 every two weeks for his six-day work weeks when he suffered injury as a result of an encounter with a cow that headbutted him. He fell to the concrete floor and suffered a brain injury. His workers’ compensation claim too was denied based on the exemption.
In these cases, without workers’ compensation protection, the only recourse these worker have is to sue their employer for injuries. However, they would have to prove the employer was somehow negligent, not just that the injury occurred in the course and scope of employment, as they would a typical workers’ compensation case. In these particular situations, that would mean the workers would be entitled to nothing.
Now, they will be allowed to seek workers’ compensation protection.
Still, there were those who opposed the measure. For starters, there was the single justice who dissented, arguing the court had overstepped its boundaries and that the intention of the legislature had been to protect certain industries from additional costs to lower overhead for farms and others in the agricultural industries.
Then there was the CEO of the farm and livestock bureau in the state, who argued the decision was a financial blow to farm, ranch and dairy families who are stretched thin as it is. Many, he said, will start turning to mechanical harvesting of crops, rather than paying for workers’ compensation insurance for their workers.
However, those machines are expensive. If farmers and others in the agricultural industry really wanted to lower costs, they could start with improving worker safety to reduce the chances of on-the-job injury.
For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-303-7770.