March 7, 2011
The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to hear a workers’ compensation insurance case that concerned an illegal immigrant in Louisiana who had sought coverage after a workplace accident. The Court’s refusal to consider the case means states are left to decide the issue of whether workers who entered the United States illegally may benefit from workers’ compensation coverage.
Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), illegal immigrants are prohibited from working in the United States. The case declined by the Court raises the question of whether or not the IRCA preempts state laws requiring the provision of workers’ compensation coverage to employees.
All states, except Texas, require employers to maintain workers’ compensation insurance coverage for their employees. All states do not, however, agree on whether workers’ compensation benefits such as coverage for medical treatment and wage replacement should extend to workers who are in the country illegally.
In Vaughan Sheet Metal & Roofing L.L.C vs. Antonio Garcia Rodriguez, Antonio Garcia Rodriguez, an illegal immigrant, was injured while working on a roof at the University Louisiana-Lafayette. Rodriguez applied for workers’ compensation benefits from his direct employer, Integrity Contracting and its owner Jason Stanton. Stanton’s workers’ comp coverage at the time was not in effect so Rodriguez applied for benefits from Vaughan, which had contracted with Integrity for the roofing work.
Rodriguez sought benefits from Vaughan as a statutory, not a direct, employer. Vaughan acknowleged it had not directly hired Rodriguez and had not been aware of his illegal status. The company asserted in denying the claim that because federal law prohibits the hiring of illegal immigrants it also prevents such workers from receiving workers’ comp benefits.
Vaughan’s argument was denied by the Louisiana trial court and in subsequent appeals.
In its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Vaughan stated that there is no general agreement among states as to whether the federal “prohibition against employing illegal aliens preempts an award of workers compensation benefits to an illegal alien.” The petition urged the Court to resolve the issue in order to “provide uniformity and continuity to workers compensation systems nationwide.”
According to the Vaughan petition, courts in Louisiana and various other states “have held that workers compensation laws are applicable to illegal aliens because the respective legislatures did not specifically exclude them.”
Courts in other states, such as Virginia, have decided that an illegal immigrant worker, because he was not lawfully employed, was not eligible for workers’ compensation benefits as an employee. Similarly, courts in Nevada and Michigan have ruled that illegal alien employees are ineligible for workers’ compensation benefits because they are working in this country unlawfully.
In addition to Louisiana, courts in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Georgia have ruled that the IRCA does not preempt state workers’ compensation laws in those jurisdictions.
The Vaughan petition asserted that without guidance by the U.S. Supreme Court, an “inconsistent and haphazard” approach to the issue by the states will continue.
“Failure to address and resolve these inconsistencies and conflicts on a nationwide basis can only lead to future litigation in the remaining states that have not yet been presented with this issue but most certainly will be,” the Vaughan petition stated.
Vaughan also suggested that the Supreme Court establish a balanced approach to workers’ compensation benefits for injured illegal alien workers under which they could receive necessary medical benefits but not wage replacement benefits.
“While not a perfect solution, it is one that could accommodate both the interests of injured workers and federal immigration policy,” the petition concluded.