Thursday, October 20, 2005

Illegal Aliens Entitled to Workers' Compensation Benefits

A California appellate court has ruled that illegal aliens are entitled to benefits within the workers' compensation system. In the case of Farmers Brothers Coffee v Workers' Compensation Appeals Board, the appellate court upheld an opinion from the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board.

The employee, Rafael Ruiz, 35, injured his shoulders, back, neck and hands by repeatedly lifting heavy sacks of coffee beans at his place of employment, Famers Brothers Coffee in Torrance, California. This ruling paves the way for Mr. Ruiz, and the 2.6 million (according to the state Department of Finance) of other illegal immigrants living in California to receive medical and disability benefits for on the job injuries. According to Merle Rabine, a commissioner on the workers' compensation appeals board, an adverse ruling in this case would have jeopardized hundreds of thousands of workers.

The employers argued to the court that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), title 8 United States Code section 1101 et seq., preempted Labor Code section 1171.5. The IRCA was passed to control unauthorized immigration to the United States, by creating employer sanctions, increasing appropriations for enforcement, and amnesty provisions. The appellate court noted:
Under the IRCA, it is unlawful to hire or continue to employ an alien the employer knows to be an "unauthorized alien," defined as one who is not lawfully admitted for permanent residence, or authorized to be so employed by federal immigration and nationality law or by the United States Attorney General. (8 U.S.C. § 1324a(a)(1)-(2), (h)(1).) The statute provides for graduated civil penalties for violations, and criminal penalties for employers who are found to have engaged in a pattern or practice of hiring unauthorized aliens in violation of the law. (8 U.S.C. § 1324a(e)(4)-(5), (f)(1).) It is also a crime to knowingly accept a false immigration document for purposes of satisfying the requirements of the statute. (8 U.S.C. § 1324c(a)(2); 18 U.S.C. § 1546(b).)
The court then discussed the provisions California Labor Code sections 1171.5 and 3351:

Section 3351, subdivision (a), defines "employee" as "every person in the service of an employer under any appointment or contract of hire or apprenticeship, express or implied, oral or written, whether lawfully or unlawfully employed . . ." including aliens. Section 1171.5 reads, in relevant part:

"The Legislature finds and declares the following:

"(a) All protections, rights, and remedies available under state law, except any reinstatement remedy prohibited by federal law, are available to all individuals regardless of immigration status who have applied for employment, or who are or who have been employed, in this state.

"(b) For purposes of enforcing state labor and employment laws, a person's immigration status is irrelevant to the issue of liability, and in proceedings or discovery undertaken to enforce those state laws no inquiry shall be permitted into a person's immigration status except where the person seeking to make this inquiry has shown by clear and convincing evidence that the inquiry is necessary in order to comply with federal immigration law.

"(c) The provisions of this section are declaratory of existing law. . . ." {Slip Opn. Page 4}

The California Legislature in its wisdom has essentially declared that anyone working for another, whether or not lawfully employed is an employee. Furthermore, for purposes of workers' compensation laws and claims, an employee's immigration status is "irrelevant". The above discussion of California law by the court is essentially the rationale upon which the court relied in reaching its conclusion.

The appellate court reasoned that there was no preemption language in the original IRCA language, and that it was not meant to preempt state labor laws, such as those in question here in California:

There is no preemption language in the IRCA expressly affecting state workers' compensation laws. The only express preemption provision states: "The provisions of this section preempt any State or local law imposing civil or criminal sanctions (other than through licensing and similar laws) upon those who employ, or recruit or refer for a fee for employment, unauthorized aliens." (8 U.S.C. § 1324a(h)(2).)

The purpose of the California Workers' Compensation Act is to furnish, expeditiously and inexpensively, treatment and compensation for persons suffering workplace injury, irrespective of the fault of any party, and to secure workplace safety. (Cal. Const., art. XIV, § 4; Sea-Land Service, Inc. v. Workers' Comp. Appeals Bd. (1996) 14 Cal.4th 76, 85.) It is remedial and humanitarian. (Bartlett Hayward Co. v. Indus. Acc. Com. (1928) 203 Cal. 522, 529.) Its benefits are not a penalty imposed upon the employer. (State Dept. of Corrections v. Workmen's Comp. App. Bd. (1971) 5 Cal.3d 885, 890-891.) There is no provision in the Workers' Compensation Act imposing civil or criminal sanctions for the employment of illegal aliens. Thus, it does not conflict with the IRCA's express preemption provision.

As it stated in its report prior to the passage of the IRCA, the House Judiciary Committee discerned no intention in the statute "that the employer sanctions provisions of the bill be used to undermine or diminish in any way labor protections in existing law, or to limit the powers of federal or state . . . labor standards agencies . . . ." (H.R. Rep. No. 99-682(I), 2d Sess. (1986), reprinted in 1986 U.S. Code Cong. & Admin. News, p. 5662; see Montero v. I.N.S. (1997) 124 F.3d 381, 384.) fn. 4

The appellate court concluded that Congress, in passing the IRCA did not intend to preempt local state labor laws, and that in Mr. Ruiz' case, the IRCA could not be used as a justification to deny him benefits under California's workers' compensation scheme.

The opinion noted that Mr. Ruiz obtained employment in California through the fraudulent use of a Social Security card and fraudulent green card. He then put a false Social Security number on his workers' compensation claim form. Nevertheless, the court held these actions did not violate California Insurance Code, section 1871.4, which makes it a criminal offense to make a knowingly false or fraudulent material representation for the purpose of obtaining workers' compensation benefits.

Given the statutes with which the appellate court had to work, I cannot conclude the court came to the wrong conclusion. The legislature has clearly enunciated that the law protects even illegal alien workers in California. It has afforded those workers, pursuant to the Labor Code sections above the right to receive medical and disability benefits regardless of their immigration status, if injured on the job.

So, how does this impact the growing problem of undocumented workers and the expenditure of tax payer money to support them, and likely even encourage them to come to work in California? It seems to exacerbate our border problems, not alleviate them. If workers know they can come to California, use forged documents to gain employment, be fully protected under worker's compensation laws, have free medical care, and even schooling for their children and families, why not come and make a better life for themselves?

Yet, the road to change, if any there will be, must begin at the legislative steps in Sacramento, and not at the court house door. If we are consistent in wanting a conservative and independent judiciary, we cannot blame them for interpreting the laws as they have been passed by the legislature. Do you know who your state senator and assembly persons are?

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