With a big decision on marriage equality by the United States Supreme Court on Friday, a  New Mexico high court decision affecting fairness for farm workers here got lost in the shadows.

But the ruling a day earlier from the New Mexico Court of Appeals ended years of legal battles when the panel of judges determined that the practice of excluding field and ranch workers from workers' compensation protection is unconstitutional.  

Those battles began in 2009 when the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty filed a lawsuit in the Second Judicial District Court on behalf of three injured dairy workers who had been denied workers' comp benefits, based on the state's long-standing exclusion.

Workers' comp is essentially a no-fault insurance program designed to compensate workers for a portion of their lost wages and medical expenses when they're injured on the job. It shifts some of the burden of caring for injured workers from taxpayers to private employers.

Workers' comp is essentially a no-fault insurance program designed to compensate workers for a portion of their lost wages and medical expenses when they're injured on the job. It shifts some of the burden of caring for injured workers from taxpayers to private employers. - See more at: http://www.sfreporter.com/santafe/article-7357-all-work-no-pay.html#sthash.uEmZuNVE.dpuf

Workers' comp is essentially a no-fault insurance program designed to compensate workers for a portion of their lost wages and medical expenses when they're injured on the job. It shifts some of the burden of caring for injured workers from taxpayers to private employers. - See more at: http://www.sfreporter.com/santafe/article-7357-all-work-no-pay.html#sthash.uEmZuNVE.dpuf

Workers' comp is essentially a no-fault insurance program designed to compensate workers for a portion of their lost wages and medical expenses when they're injured on the job. It shifts some of the burden of caring for injured workers from taxpayers to private employers. - See more at: http://www.sfreporter.com/santafe/article-7357-all-work-no-pay.html#sthash.uEmZuNVE.dpuf

Although farm work ranks as one of the most dangerous jobs in the US, New Mexicans toiling in our fields or directly with animals had been specifically excluded from workers' comp benefits for decades. Attorneys from the nonprofit argued that the exclusion violated the clause in the state constitution that says no one can be denied equal protection of the laws.

District Judge Valerie Huling ruled in favor of the workers in 2011, but that only set the stage for a longer fight. The  state Workers' Compensation Administration appealed the decision and lost. The three workers eventually received workers' comp benefits but the state maintained that the district court ruling applied only to the three workers in the lawsuit, arguing that other injured farm and ranch workers could still be excluded from workers' comp benefits.

The case the appeals court ruled on last week also came from the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, this time on behalf of two different workers: Noe Rodriguez, a dairy worker who suffered a head injury when he was attacked by a bull, and Maria Angelica Aguirre, who broke her arm when she slipped in a wet chile field. Both had been denied workers' comp benefits based on the state's exclusion of such workers.

In its unanimous decision, the court stated, "Our review of the history of workers' compensation statutes back to 1929 has not revealed an articulable purpose for the exclusion." The court further noted that the exclusion was "without purpose or reason and leads to absurd results."

Lawyers with the nonprofit say this decision means that any field or ranch worker injured on the job will be able to apply for workers' comp.

Gail Evans and Maria Martinez Sanchez, the attorneys who brought the original 2009 case, said the ruling represents a victory.

"Finally, a court has struck down this outdated, discriminatory law which treated our most hardworking and underpaid workers differently from all other workers when they were injured at work," Evans,  legal director for the law center, said in a press release.

Martinez Sanchez (who now works with the American Civil Liberties Union in Albuquerque) concurred: "This ruling finally tells agricultural employers…that they must care for their workers the same way all other employers in New Mexico are required to do."

The ruling doesn't mean that the two workers—or any injured farm and ranch workers—will necessarily receive workers' comp benefits. "You never know what may happen," said Tim Davis, a staff attorney at the law center who worked on the Court of Appeals case. "The ruling just means that an injured farmworker…will have the ability, under the law, to file a claim if they're injured."

But the expectation is that injured workers will finally receive benefits they deserve.

"Many workers have been disabled due to an injury sustained in the fields, but they still had to work because they were excluded from workers' comp benefits," said Carlos Marentes, director of the Sin Fronteras Organizing Project, a farmworker advocacy organization in El Paso, Texas. "We hope now that injured farmworkers will see the benefits of workers' comp."

But Marentes added a note of caution: "We were very happy about the ruling, but a ruling is one thing. The next thing is implementation. New Mexico must…provide benefits to injured farmworkers."

Advocates are under no illusions. "There is still much work to be done," said Martinez Sanchez. "Farm and ranch workers must be provided with the dignity, respect and justice they deserve for the hard work they do."