I find the world of workers’ compensation quite fascinating at times. It is a world that seemingly never changes, yet is always in flux. It is a legalistic, actuarily driven universe awash in human drama, where there is seemingly no end to conflict or the suspense of competition. A great example of this occurred last month, when the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled as unconstitutional an exception to the state's workers' compensation laws that did not require employers to provide coverage for farm and ranch workers.
Since 1975 New Mexico statute has required workers’ compensation coverage for all employees, except for “private domestic servants and farm and ranch laborers”. The courts decision effectively eliminates that exception.
This is the same court that relatively recently declared that employers must pay for medical marijuana, so it is a double win for these injured workers. Yee haw.
This decision actually hinges on an earlier one, made in 2009. In that case workers had successfully gained a ruling on unconstitutionality of the law, but the appeal was denied for other reasons; the case had settled by the time it reached the Court of Appeals. In this case, however, Rodriguez v. Brand West Dairy, two injured agricultural workers cited the ruling in the earlier case, but workers' compensation judges still denied their claims. That was the basis for this appeal, which now seems to have firmly cemented the ruling as law (pending further appeals, of course).
This ruling applies to all claims that were brought after, or pending on, March 30, 2012, the date of the original ruling in the previously mentioned case.
The dichotomy here is that, while some entities seem to be fighting to get out of workers’ comp, whether they be court cases challenging exclusive remedy or the push to opt out altogether, others are fighting to get in. For some the ship appears to be sinking, and they are looking to grab the nearest lifeboat they can find. For others the sinking ship IS the lifeboat, and they are happy to have the opportunity to clamor aboard.
It is true that the examples I cited are borne of different goals and motivations. The court challenges brought in Florida and elsewhere are being driven by injured workers claiming inclusion in the system violates their rights, while the opt out drive is being pursued by employers looking to escape the complexities of comp (and in some cases perhaps their responsibilities as well). Still, there is no denying this is a very hectic ship, and tracking who wants on and who wants off is quite the challenge in itself.
Statistically the New Mexico Court of Appeals decision is likely not to have a huge impact. Almost 30 percent of farm and ranch employers in the state already voluntarily provide workers' compensation coverage for their workers. Other states exemptions on agriculture are not affected by this, and there is no indication that this particular case will result in a wider trend across the country. Also, New Mexico employers may still appeal to the New Mexico Supreme Court to review the court's decision. If the state Supreme’s choose to hear the case, it could be a whole new ball game, or back to the benches.
That is the unending drama and intrigue that is the dichotomous world of workers’ compensation.