Labor bill receives lukewarm reception

By Marlena Hartz : Freedom Newspapers

A bill that would help farm and ranch laborers injured at work has gotten a lukewarm reception in the Legislature, and local lawmakers predict it has too many hiccups to pass.

Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, and others said a bill that would amend the Worker’s Compensation Act to include farm and ranch workers will likely stall in a legislative committee.

Rep. Brian Moore, R-Clayton, said House Bill 80 “will be a tough sell.”

“I appreciate the thought behind it,” Moore said. “It’s a dangerous occupation, but this is not the way to deal with it.”

Agriculture is one of the nation’s most hazardous industries, but only 26 states require agricultural employers to provide workers’ compensation for migrant and seasonal farm workers, according to a New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee fiscal impact report.

Injured farm and ranch workers often forgo needed treatment, go into debt to obtain it, or are reluctant to file claims for fear of employer retaliation, the report reads.

Despite the hazards of agricultural labor, many say mandating House Bill 80 would be messy and costly.

Lots of eastern New Mexico farm and ranch owners already have insurance to cover medical costs of injured workers, according to Clovis farm owner Stanley Pipkin.

“It’s just another added expense. There are more efficient ways to run an insurance program than through the state,” he said.

From an administration perspective, House Bill 80 also has hitches.

Farm and ranch workers are “an extremely mobile population” — some are illegal immigrants who zigzag across the U.S. and Mexico border, said Van Cravens, State of New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration public information officer.

“How do you track these people?” Cravens said.

Implementing the bill would cost the state an estimated $150,000 to $275,000 in 2008, and expenses would recur annually, according to the Legislature’s fiscal report.

At present staffing levels, the Workers’ Compensation Administration could not absorb an increased number of workers’ compensation claims, the reports reads.

Reform could save House Bill 80, according to Dale Petty, a Clovis native who lobbies in New Mexico on behalf of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.

As written, the bill requires farm and ranch employers of three or more laborers to supply workers’ compensation and does not distinguish between full-time employees or seasonal and migrant workers. Petty said the bill should apply to employers of 10 or more laborers.

“We hate to see bills that are introduced and have a blanket coverage. It really hurts the small producers,” Petty said.

“When you get to a larger operation, it puts it into a different ballgame,” he said.

Many farms and ranches are corporations with hundreds of employees and should be required to help workers injured on the job, Petty said.