ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Joe Griego's life changed in seconds when he turned his back on a bull he was trying to corral during work at a southern New Mexico dairy. The bull attacked, leaving Griego with serious injuries.
The worst part, he said, was discovering that his injuries weren't covered by state workers' compensation benefits. Now, he and others are suing the state Workers' Compensation Administration and its director, demanding farm and ranch workers be included in coverage.
Thirty-three states, including neighboring Colorado and Arizona, already require workers' compensation for farm workers, although some limit coverage or exempt small farms. But New Mexico's agricultural workers fall into a job category not protected under state law.
Griego, 41, said he didn't sue the dairy where he was injured because he wants to help change the law statewide.
"It's hard to just wake up in the morning and face the pain. And financially, we're losing everything," Griego said. "There's a lot of people who got hurt in agriculture ... but are afraid to step up."
Administration spokesman Van Cravens said farm and ranch employers can voluntarily cover their laborers under workers' compensation. He said some producers cover laborers under liability insurance or pay out-of-pocket for medical bills if a worker is injured. Cravens said the transitional lifestyle of farm workers is a factor in excluding them.
The state Workers' Compensation Act requires employers with three or more workers to provide workers' compensation benefits — except for farm and ranch laborers, private domestic servants and real estate agents.
The state workers' comp agency conducted an analysis for legislative purposes indicating the administration would expect 475 claims per year from New Mexico's farm and ranch laborers if they were added to benefits, said plaintiffs' attorney Gail Evans of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
Evans said it is hard to know how many farm and ranch workers are injured every year, as they generally do not report injuries because there is no place to do so.
Nationwide, the agriculture industry is tied with construction as the second-most dangerous industry for nonfatal injuries, and farm work is behind logging and fishing for on-the-job fatalities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Joining Los Lunas resident Griego as plaintiffs are Isaac Marquez, an injured farm worker from Arrey, N.M., along with two worker organizations — HELP-New Mexico and Sin Fronteras Organizing Project. They want the farm and ranch workers exclusion declared unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the state constitution.
Farm and ranch workers make little money — some less than $7,000 a year — and "have no political power," Evans said.
Carlos Marentes, director of El Paso, Texas-based Sin Fronteras Organizing Project, said chile and dairy producers can provide benefits and not doing so is "passing the costs along to the rest of society, especially in health care."
Farm and ranch laborers have been excluded from the law since 1937, Cravens said. The lawsuit was no surprise because farm labor groups have tried unsuccessfully to change the law in the Legislature, he said.
New Mexico has about 11,000 agricultural workers. Marentes said most farm workers are legal residents.
John Martinez, director of HELP-New Mexico, said the law needs to catch up with the state's growing agricultural industry.
"There's a perception that we're still a mom-and-pop farm and ranch state, but that perception does not meet with reality anymore," Martinez said, citing the state's nationally ranked chile, pecan and dairy industries. New Mexico's net farm income in 2007 was more than $821 million.
Dairy owner Joe Gonzales of Mesquite said just because some agriculture industries in the state are large doesn't mean they're rich.
"We're an economic engine that has everyone relying on us to buy hay, equipment and pay our taxes, but we've had eight to 10 dairies close recently and we're losing millions in equity due to low milk prices," said Gonzales, vice president for Dairy Producers of New Mexico.
"We're caught in the middle — the government sets our pay price and we have no way to pass that added labor cost along like other industries," he said.
An assessment by the state Workers' Compensation Administration shows the average cost of premiums to cover agriculture workers would be less than $10, or 1.3 percent of annual net farm income in New Mexico.
Charlie Marquez, spokesman for the New Mexico Chile Association, said a recent agriculture census shows 20,930 farms in New Mexico, 88 percent of them with a net cash farm income of less than $50,000 annually.
Griego said he received $5,000 for medical bills from the dairy where the bull attack occurred but his yearlong absence from work is taking its toll on his family of six. They're living off his wife's salary and have gone weeks at a time without electricity or water, he said.
"So, basically, I'm nothing to the state, even though I work and pay my taxes," Griego said. "It's just not fair."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.