An injured worker turns out to be an illegal immigrant. His injuries prohibit him from doing the type of physical labor he previously did. He could do sedentary work, but he doesn’t have the skills. Does he get permanent total disability (PTD) benefits under workers’ comp?
Luis Aragon worked for HDV Construction Systems in Tallahassee, FL, as a framer. He fell from a height of 30 feet and suffered multiple complex fractures of his left foot and forearm.
His injuries required extensive medical treatment, including implantation of a spinal cord stimulator.
Doctors say Aragon’s injuries are permanent and he should perform sedentary work only. He could no longer do construction, farm and manufacturing work.
However, his ability to get a job within a 50-mile radius of his home (a test for whether an injured worker should receive PTD benefits) was also hampered by his limited education, inability to speak, read or write English, and lack of transferable skills.
Taking his limitations and injuries into account, a Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC) awarded PTD benefits to Aragon.
The company appealed to a state court.
Company should know work status
Aragon shouldn’t get PTD benefits because of his illegal status, the company argued.
The JCC had ruled that his employer should have known Aragon was an illegal immigrant, so that wasn’t a valid reason to withhold comp.
The appeals court agreed. It said there is no dispute that the Florida legislature has intended for workers’ comp to cover both those who are legally and illegally employed. State law defines “employee” as anyone who receives compensation from an employer, whether “lawfully or unlawfully employed.”
The court also pointed out that workers’ comp law was enacted to make sure the expense of injuries created by industry is placed on industry, rather than on society.
“An entity that knowingly employs unlawful labor should not be able to shirk the cost of the injuries it creates — and in turn, shift the cost of the damages that it has knowingly created on the taxpaying public — ultimately placing it in a[n] unfairly superior financial position to those employers who operate lawfully,” the court wrote.
Decision: Aragon should receive PTD benefits under workers’ comp.
Is the system working or broken?
This is hardly the first decision in which an illegal immigrant has been awarded workers’ comp benefits.
However, this case has the added twist of using the worker’s lack of other skills, including little knowledge of English, as a test of whether he should receive PTD benefits.
Opponents of these types of decisions say awarding workers’ comp benefits to an illegal immigrant places a burden on the company by raising its costs.
But the alternative might be more costly. If illegal immigrants aren’t allowed to receive workers’ comp benefits which have statutory financial limits, the injured workers could sue companies instead, and the awards in those lawsuits don’t have the same limits.
Another argument against these workers’ comp awards: The illegal immigrants broke the law. But haven’t the companies also broken the law by hiring the illegal immigrants in the first place?
So here is the question: Isn’t the solution for companies to make sure they hire only properly documented workers in the first place?
Let us know what you think in the Comments Box below.
(HDV v. Aragon, Dist. Crt. of Appeal of FL, First Dist., No. 1D10-6401, 6/28/2011)