The question of whether illegal immigrants can receive Workers Compensation is a complicated and unsettled one. Under federal law, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) makes it unlawful for employers to knowingly hire an unauthorized alien. IRCA also prohibits unauthorized aliens from submitting false or forged identity documents in order to obtain employment. The issue of entitlement to benefits remains unresolved because states have their own Workers Compensation laws and there are no clear guidelines as to how to interpret, apply and accommodate federal law.
States Split On The Issue
The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to rule on whether the prohibition against hiring illegal aliens automatically prevents them from being awarded Workers Compensation benefits. In the absence of a definite federal mandate, states are left to decide the issue for themselves. Virginia’s highest court concluded that illegal aliens do not qualify for Workers Compensation because they cannot legally enter into a contract of employment. Wyoming and Idaho restrict the payment of Workers Compensation benefits to legal aliens. Florida disqualifies Workers Compensation applicants who submit false or misleading statements about their identity in order to obtain employment.
Other states, such as Ohio, have interpreted their state Workers Compensation statutes as including illegal aliens in benefit eligibility. New York has also construed its statute to permit payments to undocumented workers. Courts in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Minnesota have ruled that IRCA does not override their own jurisdictions’ Workers Compensation laws in allowing benefits to illegal immigrants.
Does Excluding Illegal Immigrants Cause Problems?
Many state courts believe that excluding illegal aliens from eligibility for Workers Compensation creates a financial incentive for employers to hire undocumented immigrants. Such practices directly contradict the stated purposes of IRCA. Further, granting employers immunity from paying Workers Compensation benefits to illegal aliens makes them less inclined to maintain safety in the workplace.
Wyoming, for example, which prohibits payment of Workers Compensation benefits to illegal aliens, has a worker death rate three and a half times higher than the national average. Growth in the oil, gas and mining industries has drawn thousands of people to Wyoming in search of high-paying, albeit highly dangerous, jobs. Because these workers so often have no fixed residence in the state they fear they will be fired if they complain of safety problems. They are also hesitant to file lawsuits or report their injuries. Wyoming may or may not be hiring illegal immigrants for these very hazardous jobs but the state’s employers are clearly lacking in accountability for proper worksite safety procedures.
State Workers Compensation laws appear to be at odds with federal immigration law in the treatment of undocumented workers who are injured on the job. However these issues are resolved, the principal concern is worker safety, regardless of national origin.