In a recent opinion, a state court said depriving undocumented employees from workers’ comp benefits decreases the burden on companies to provide safe workplaces.
This Tennessee case is another in a series of decisions which say that excluding undocumented employees from the workers’ comp system would give an unfair advantage to those companies who would employ them. So when those workers get injured, the employer wouldn’t be held financially responsible. Ccompanies’ costs for these injuries wouldn’t go up.
Here’s what happened in this case:
Ricardo Torres worked for Precision Industries and hurt his back on the job.
He sought medical attention at a provider chosen by Precision but had some trouble collecting workers’ comp benefits for the injury.
Torres hired a lawyer. After a phone call from the lawyer to Precision, the company’s safety manager and general manager “unprofessionally confronted Torres about his workers’ compensation claim,” according to court documents.
Later the same day as the confrontation, Precision fired Torres, stating the reason as “lack of work.”
Torres filed a complaint in a county court alleging wrongful termination by retaliation for filing a workers’ comp claim. Precision said it had “legitimate and non-retaliatory reasons” for firing Torres.
Precision filed a motion for summary judgment – a request to throw out the lawsuit – based on the reasoning that Torres wasn’t legally authorized to work in the U.S. and therefore couldn’t make a claim for retaliatory discharge.
Torres argued his work status shouldn’t prevent him from filing for retaliatory discharge.
The trial court agreed with the company, and threw out the lawsuit based on Precision’s argument.
However, the court made an interesting statement regarding the case:
“This Court is troubled by the termination of the plaintiff by the defendant for several reasons. First, there is a material dispute regarding the reason for termination. Secondly, this Court finds that the defendant likely knew of the plaintiff’s illegal status as an employee.”
In effect, the trial court was saying that, if it weren’t for what it perceived to be an issue with Torres’s legal work status, it would have denied the summary judgment request. At the same time, the court believed Precision knew about Torres’s work status and then used that as a reason to deny him the rights afforded to other employees under the state’s workers’ comp law.
And this is precisely what became the issue in Torres’s appeal of the trial court’s decision.
Incentive to hire undocumented workers?
In the appeal, both sides’ arguments were the same as they were before the trial court. Torres argued his work status shouldn’t bar him from filing a retaliatory discharge claim under Tennessee’s workers’ comp law. Precision argued the opposite.
The appeals court made the following findings in coming to its conclusion:
- Retaliatory discharge relieves the employer of its duty to compensate the employee for injuries suffered on the job as required by the state workers’ comp law.
- The Tennessee workers comp law’s definition of employee includes the phrase, “whether lawfully or unlawfully employed.”
- The Tennessee Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel previously found that undocumented workers aren’t excluded from coverage under the state workers’ comp law.
- Courts in federal jurisdictions have generally found unauthorized workers can bring retaliation cases against employers under the Fair Labor Standard Act and the National Labor Relations Act.
Given those findings, it came down to this for the appeals court:
“We find that depriving unauthorized aliens of an avenue to bring a retaliatory discharge claim could potentially increase the incentive of employers to hire illegal workers that they could terminate if a workers’ compensation claim was filed … It also decreases the burden on employers to provide and maintain a safe workplace, if an employer can easily escape paying workers’ compensation for an injury by firing an unauthorized alien employee without consequence.”
The appeals court overturned the trial court’s decision, saying Torres can file his retaliatory discharge claim. The appeals court sent the case back to the county court for trial.
If you’ve been following similar cases (including ones we’ve written about), the court’s decision in this case shouldn’t come as a surprise. The reasoning: Companies that knowingly hire undocumented workers could gain a business advantage (lower workers’ comp costs) by being able to fire them without covering the costs of their injuries.
What are your thoughts on this issue? Let us know in the comments.
(Ricardo Torres v. Precision Industries, Court of Appeals of Tennessee, No. W2014-00032-COA-R3-CV, 8/5/14)