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Workers’ compensation laws were created to compensate an employee for injuries sustained while on the job. One of the most debated issues in the area of worker’s compensation is whether workers who have entered the country illegally should be granted the same work place protections that legal employees have. Some argue that illegal immigrants should NOT be entitled to workers compensation if injured while working because they are not lawful employees, and should not be here in the first place. Others argue that illegal immigrants SHOULD be covered by the worker’s compensation laws so that employers don’t have more of an incentive to hire illegals as a way to avoid workers compensation liability. The states vary in how they have addressed that question. Most recently, South Carolina ruled in favor of coverage for illegal workers.
Curiel v. EMS
In Curiel v. Environmental Management Services the South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously ruled that illegal immigrants are eligible for worker’s compensation if they are hurt on the job. In that case Curiel, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, was a construction worker for Environmental Management Services (EMS). While on the job he injured his eye and filed for worker’s compensation benefits because of the injury. EMS refused to pay because the company claimed that Curiel was not an employee under the law.
Illegal to pay Illegals
EMS based their case on the constitutional argument that the Supremacy clause of the Constitution invalidates South Carolina’s worker’s compensation statute. The Supremacy clause generally states that any state law that conflicts with a federal law is void. EMS argued that the federal law that makes it illegal to hire illegal aliens trumps the state worker’s compensation law that defines an employee as “every person engaged in an employment… whether lawfully or unlawfully employed.” Thus EMS argued the state law is unenforceable as to illegal workers and Curiel could not collect benefits.
Ruling for Curiel
For several reasons the court ruled that Curiel should be granted worker’s compensation for his injury. Part of the ruling for Curiel was based on public policy reasons. The court stated that if employers could escape liability for claims brought by illegal immigrants, then a ruling for EMS would only encourage employers to continue to hire illegal workers.
The court was not persuaded by the supremacy argument either because it stated that the text and purpose of federal immigration law was not intend to “undermine or diminish” any existing state labor law protections. Thus the two laws were not in conflict with each other. However, Congress is able to change the law so it does conflict if it chooses to do so.
Two sections of the Constitution allow Congress to act to forbid similar court rulings in the future, the aforementioned Supremacy clause and the Commerce clause. The Supremacy clause will allow Congress to explicitly void worker’s compensation benefits to illegal workers due to federal immigration law. The Commerce Clause grants Congress the exclusive ability to regulate interstate commerce. Congress could pass a law that forbids paying worker’s compensation benefits to illegal immigrants who are injured in interstate commerce. This type of law would likely see a lengthy political battle to become a law and an eventual court battle if it is passed.
For more information on worker's rights, contact a local workers' compensation attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.