An employee suffers an injury and requires surgery. Weeks later, the employer discovered the worker was an illegal immigrant. Can the employee get workers’ comp benefits?
Palemon Cassarubias Gonzales was working as a busboy at a restaurant in Washington, DC, owned by Asylum Co. A bottle thrown by a customer hit Gonzales in the eye, dislocating its lens and causing him to lose 100% of vision in the eye.
Gonzales had eye surgery and tried to return to work less than four weeks later.
It was then, according to Asylum, that the company realized Gonzales had used his cousin’s green card and papers and that he was an undocumented alien.
Gonzales filed a claim for workers’ comp. An administrative law judge (ALJ) found he was eligible for comp benefits. The employer appealed to the Compensation Review Board, which upheld the ALJ’s decision.
Then the case went to the DC Court of Appeals.
Does federal law trump state?
The court considered whether DC’s workers’ compensation law was preempted by the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).
The IRCA prohibits an alien from using “any document lawfully issued … to a person other than the possessor” to get a job.
In a nutshell, this company argued that the IRCA makes an undocumented alien’s “contract for hire” illegal and bars him from receiving workers’ comp benefits.
Other state courts have observed that declining to consider employment of illegal aliens as contracts would provide unscrupulous employers with a financial incentive to hire undocumented workers: They could hire them and not pay for workers’ comp coverage.
For that reason, the courts said providing workers’ comp coverage to illegal aliens was in accord with the IRCA, not opposite of its intention.
The DC court said it could find no reason to disagree with the decisions in other states.
The verdict: The court upheld the previous decision that Gonzales is entitled to an award of temporary total disability benefits.
(Asylum Co. v. Gonzales, DC Court of Appeals, No. 08-AA-1158, 12/23/10.)
What do you think about the court’s decision? Do you think withholding workers’ comp benefits from undocumented aliens would cause more companies to hire them? Let us know in the Comments Box below.