Slowly but surely, state courts are addressing whether employees who aren’t eligible to work legally in this country should be eligible for workers’ comp when injured on the job. Yet another state now has a precedent-setting case.
A Delaware employer tried three arguments to stop workers’ comp payments to a former employee who was deported.
Saul Melgar Ramirez was injured on the job in January 2011. He fell down six steps landing on his back, suffering back fractures and a herniated disk.
Before he could complete treatment, he was deported to Honduras and is now “excluded” from the U.S. A doctor in Honduras confirmed Ramirez still needed treatment for the back conditions after he was deported.
Delaware’s Industrial Accident Board (IAB) awarded comp benefits to Ramirez and ruled they should continue even after he was deported.
His former employer, Delaware Valley Field Services (DVFS), appealed the IAB decision. Delaware’s Superior Court took a look at this “case of first impression” for the state.
How does his status affect benefits?
DVFS made these three arguments that Ramirez shouldn’t continue to receive comp benefits:
- Because of his undocumented immigrant status, there can’t be a valid, enforceable employment contract between Ramirez and DVFS.
- Ramirez’s deportation and exclusion from the U.S. is the same as being incarcerated. Delaware law says workers’ comp benefits may be suspended for as long as an employee is incarcerated.
- Ramirez “refused” to submit to an employer medical evaluation.
The court addressed each argument.
- The court said there’s nothing in Delaware law that would break an employment contract, written or verbal, between a worker and employer. The definition of employee in state law says nothing about excluding illegal immigrants. Also, the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act doesn’t specifically bar undocumented immigrants from receiving workers’ comp benefits, according to the Delaware court.
- Ramirez isn’t in jail in Honduras, the court noted, and deportation and exclusion from the U.S. isn’t the same as incarceration.
- The court said Ramirez hasn’t refused to submit to medical evaluation. He saw two doctors, one in the U.S. before he left, and one in Honduras. Both said he was totally disabled because of his back injuries.
For those reasons, the Delaware court ruled there was no reason to terminate Ramirez’s workers’ comp benefits.
Note: This is the way most state courts are deciding workers’ comp cases involving illegal immigrants. As part of its decision, the Delaware court quoted a similar case from a Washington D.C. court, in which a judge wrote, “As many courts have concluded, denying compensation coverage to undocumented aliens creates powerful incentives for employers to hire such individuals.”
What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments below.
(Delaware Valley Field Services v. Saul Melgar Ramirez, DE Superior Court, No. 12A-01-007-JOH, 9/13/12)