A company tried to argue that it didn’t owe workers’ comp benefits to an undocumented worker. Why did a court disagree with the company’s position?
Pascuala Jimenez first came to the U.S. legally from Mexico with a visa which permitted her to stay and work in the country for ten years. After ten years, the government didn’t extend her visa, which meant she could no longer work legally in the U.S.
After those ten years went by, Jimenez was employed by Staff Management, a temp agency. Staff Management assigned her to work for Proctor and Gamble in Iowa City, Iowa. She was a line leader and a supervisor, and when she helped out on the line, she had to lift boxes and pallets weighing 25 to 60 pounds.
In Sept. 2007, after feeling pain in her abdomen, Jimenez was diagnosed with two hernias. In November she had surgery.
She was able to return to work for only a short time following the surgery because of continuing pain.
On Jan. 22, 2008, Staff Management terminated Jimenez because she didn’t have authorization to work in the U.S. The company was a charter member of the E-Verify program. In August 2007, Staff Management had received notice stating Jimenez’s name and social security number didn’t match with the Social Security Administration’s records. Staff Management contacted Jimenez at least three times to let her know she needed to provide documentation showing she could legally work in the U.S. or it couldn’t continue to employ her.
(Staff Management also terminated 10 other employees when it fired Jimenez.)
As time went by, Jimenez suffered more complications from hernias. One of her doctors said this was as a result of a work injury. Jimenez hadn’t worked after leaving her Staff Management position.
On July 6, 2009, Jimenez filed for workers’ comp benefits. A deputy commissioner held a hearing and decided that, because her current hernia trouble was the result of the surgical correction of the 2007 hernias, Jimenez was entitled to benefits.
The deputy ordered Staff Management to pay Jimenez weekly benefits, all medical expenses to treat the work-related injury and to pay for future medical care and prescription charges until she reached maximum medical improvement.
Staff Management appealed the ruling. It was upheld by the full commission and a district court. The company then appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.
Does employment status matter?
Staff Management cited three reasons the court should find an undocumented worker is not allowed to receive benefits under the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act:
- Iowa doesn’t include undocumented workers in its definition of employee in its workers’ comp law
- Iowa law requires a contract of service between the employer and employee to be covered by the state workers’ comp law, and the contract in this case would be void because of its illegality, and
- Federal law pre-empts the availability of certain benefits under state law, including the running healing period benefits ordered to be provided for Jimenez.
The Iowa Supreme Court responded:
- Iowa’s workers’ comp law defines employee broadly, but it also provides a list of exceptions to the definition. Undocumented workers weren’t on the list of exceptions, so they are employees.
- A contract between an employer and an undocumented worker isn’t void. It’s a valid contract.
- The purpose of the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) was to inhibit employment of undocumented workers. The purpose wasn’t to diminish labor protections for undocumented workers. Not covering undocumented workers under Iowa’s workers’ comp law would undermine the IRCA by encouraging employers to hire undocumented workers because the employers wouldn’t be liable under workers’ comp law for any injuries those workers sustained. So federal law doesn’t pre-empt Iowa’s workers’ comp law.
For those reasons, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the original decision that Jimenez shouldn’t be denied workers’ comp benefits because she was an undocumented worker.
What do you think about the court’s ruling? Let us know in the comments.
(Staff Management v. Jimenez, Supreme Court of Iowa, No. 12-1645, 11/15/13)