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Supreme Court Allows States To Rule On Immigrant Workers’ Comp

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to a hear a case that would have forced a broader ruling on whether States can deny workers’ compensation to undocumented workers injured on the job.

According to court documents, Antonio Garcia Rodriguez sustained an injury on February 6, 2004 while doing roofing work for Integrity Contracting at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.  His claim was initially denied by the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Corporation because LWCC claimed Integrity had failed to pay its premium on the policy.  However, Integrity Contracting was a subcontractor working for Vaughan Roofing & Sheet Metal, making Vaughan Roofing liable as a statutory employer.  Vaughan countered that Rodriguez was on an expired work visa at the time of the accident, thus placing him in that most murky of legal categories: the undocumented worker.

At stake in the case of Vaughan vs. Rodriguez was whether Federal law trumps State Law in the matter of workers’ compensation.  State laws require employers to provide workers’ compensation to injured workers.  But the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) made it illegal to knowingly hire or recruit undocumented immigrants.  One way that employers worked around this new law was to make extensive use of subcontractors, as Vaughan Roofing did in the Rodriguez case.

States have dealt with this conflict between State and Federal Law in many ways. California, Maryland, and Florida among others have held that an injured worker’s immigration status is irrelevant to his or hers workers’ compensation claim.  In a California case, the Court of Appeals rejected an employer’s argument that the IRCA preempts California’s labor code that includes undocumented workers in the definition of covered workers.  In fact, the court held there was no true conflict between the IRCA and California law.  The court noted that barring injured undocumented workers from collecting workers’ compensation would encourage “unscrupulous employers to hire unauthorized aliens” to work knowing they would not have to pay any claims to injured workers.

By declining to hear the Vaughan case, the Supreme Court effectively reaffirmed that this important question should be settled at the State level.

When Immigration and Workers’ Compensation laws intersect, injured workers’ may feel overwhelmed by the obstacles to their legal claim.  Injured workers should consult with an expert Washington Workers’ Compensation Attorney who understands the shifting legal landscape.

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Emery Reddy