Hurting on the Job
A new lawsuit seeks Workman's Compensation for farmworkers.
It's hard to believe you're in the 21st century when you see some of the labor practices in the fields of New Mexico. Sometimes I think it's more like the 1950s, or even a century ago.
It could be that the most urgent issue for fieldworkers is the lack of a Workman's Compensation program for them in New Mexico. In the 13 years I've lived here, I've heard lots of stories of injuries in the fields.
So I was excited to learn that some organizations are suing the state to get compulsory Workman's Comp for agricultural workers.
On August 25 there was a press conference in Albuquerque announcing the lawsuit. The organizations initiating the suit were the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty in Albuquerque, the Sin Fronteras Organizing Project in El Paso, and HELP-New Mexico, Inc. They're trying to change the 1917 Workman's Compensation Act in New Mexico that excludes agricultural workers. New Mexico is one of 12 states that has no compulsory Workman's Comp for farmworkers.
The "agricultural workers" in the lawsuit include dairy workers, who make about $18,000 a year. Fieldworkers make $6,000 to $7,000 on average. When they are injured they're almost never paid for medical help or for back wages for lost work.
Present at the press conference were two plaintiffs. One, Joe Griego, was gored by a bull in Los Lunas and suffered eight broken ribs and an injured spine. His wife had to take on a second job. The other was Isaac Marquez, who blames his bronchitis and asthma on chemicals used in chile fields.
There are people all over southwestern New Mexico who've been injured by agricultural work.
Just a few weeks ago in Deming I met an elderly man whose hands looked permanently bent, as if they were perpetually curled around a hoe or always picking chile. He couldn't work any more and was on public assistance. When I told him about the lawsuit, he said, "Que dios le bendiga" ("God bless you").
One of the worst cases of injury I've seen in my narrow personal experience was a man I met at a farmworker rooming house on Ruby Street in Deming. He was woozily drunk that afternoon (a fact he chuckled at afterwards). His name was Pedro, and he was a pretty mellow guy from Michoacan, with hair beginning to turn grey.
His story was that he was picking red chile in the Bootheel and somehow a twig of the chile plant poked into his eye. The man was brought to a Silver City hospital, where they removed his eye. This was six or eight years ago.
Pedro told me the labor contractor paid him $400, but because of his missing eye, he earned only about half of what he had earned before in the fields. I haven't seen him in a few years.
Maybe 10 years ago, I stood at the Port of Entry in Columbus interviewing farmworkers returning to Palomas from work. One of them hobbled extremely when he walked. There was hardly a part of his body that wasn't crooked. I'm not used to asking strangers how they became deformed, but this time I did.
He said he got run over by a truck or tractor in a field, and that he got "ni un cinco" (not even a nickle) from anybody. He was still outraged. I believe this happened in Arizona, where Workman's Comp is compulsory, but then there are always people who slip through the cracks of the system.
The Albuquerque Journal article about the press conference in Albuquerque quoted executive director Sharon Lombardi of the Dairy Producers of New Mexico: "Almost everybody in agriculture takes care of their employees. If there's a health issue, they always take care of their own."
I'm guessing that what she was really saying was, "Stay out of our workplace. We don't feel like paying our workers when they're injured."
I'm much more familiar with growers than with dairy owners, but I know that the growers are rarely in the fields, partly because they're busy and partly because they're avoiding liability for illegal practices there.
I haven't heard of a single case of a grower paying an injured worker's expenses. I've just heard of one contractor paying $400 to Pedro.
It didn't take me long to find someone in Salem, NM, who'd been injured at a dairy. Working as a welder at a Las Uvas dairy, he'd burned his eyes and couldn't see for three months. "I didn't get paid anything," he claimed, even though he had "talked with the bosses."
Some dairy owners or growers may well help their injured workers. I don't think they all have hearts of stone. But as a group they are well-organized and serious about not paying for Workman's Comp.
The groups mentioned have tried to pass a Workman's Comp bill in the state legislature for the past three years, while growers and dairy farmers have howled that the organizations were trying to put them out of business. Groups in the lawsuit claim that agricultural profits would be affected by only about 1%.
|In September some regular donors to Maria
Lopez's food drive in Palomas took her and me to lunch in Columbus. I realized
that I'd met Maria just about a year before, and I asked her if the food
situation was better or worse in Palomas now.
With all her earnestness and sincerity she answered, "Esta peor" ("It's worse"). The effects of unemployment are cumulative. She also said that for some reason the chile season was already drawing to a close, putting even more people out of work.
Does it need to be said again that donations are still appreciated? Please send checks to Maria Lopez/DIF, c/o Desert Exposure, PO Box 191, Silver City, NM 88062.
Meanwhile, fieldwork is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the US. Sometimes workers hurt themselves tripping on a rock or slipping in the mud. (Some fieldworkers actually run through the furrows in the field to earn every penny they can.) Then there are the many effects of chemicals, from hands with rashes to a little kid in Hatch whose father claimed was deformed due to pesticides, something that is obviously hard to prove.
A white-haired man I knew in Deming was run over by a tractor and had to pay $400 for mending his broken leg. His son was a joker, and together they yukked it up about the way the tractor collided with him. But it must have been hard to pay the bill.
If some of these injured workers were undocumented, it wouldn't upset me much if they were given financial help from the government, despite what Rep. Joe Wilson and Lou Dobbs are saying. It would be hard not to want to help them.
The Workman's Comp lawsuit may be dismissed by the New Mexico Supreme Court. It will probably take over a year to make it to the legislature in 2011.
Unfortunately, it's a little hard to imagine anything happening at all. In southern New Mexico, there's too much conservatism and apathy, even on the part of Latinos, and in the more liberal north there's hardly any information about farmworkers being circulated.
But this legislation needs to pass. I hope it does as soon as possible.