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Annals of Workers Comp: New Hazards for a Second-Class Workforce
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Annals of Workers Comp: New Hazards for a Second-Class Workforce

We have all seen hard-working individuals who may lack legal status in America. They are mowing lawns, tending gardens, painting houses, harvesting crops, and providing day labor. They are constructing office buildings, roads and bridges. They are preparing food in restaurants and stocking shelves in grocery stores. They are everywhere and we all depend on the work they do.

Now that millions of undocumented residents of the United States have been put on notice that they are subject to deportation at any time, their precarious attachment to the workforce is very much at risk. The workers compensation safety net - for the most part available throughout the country - may abruptly disappear.

To this point, states have generally held that undocumented workers are, to a large degree, protected by workers compensation. If injured on the job, these workers are eligible for indemnity and medical payments. In a number of states, however, they are not eligible for vocational rehabilitation, as they are technically not "qualified" to work.

Fear of Discovery

Now imagine the thought process of injured undocumented workers. First, should they report the injury to the employer? In most cases, this would not be a problem, as the employer would be invested in taking care of the worker and getting him or her back to full duty. But unscrupulous employers could choose to simply terminate the worker, knowing that their undocumented status would make it unlikely that the worker would take any action against the employer.

If workers get past this hurdle, should they then seek treatment? In entering the medical system without legitimate documentation, there is the risk that their status would be exposed, triggering deportation. It is not difficult to imagine ICE staffers hanging around emergency rooms. As a result, injured workers lacking documentation may put themselves at risk by abandoning their rights as workers and choosing to treat injuries themselves.

By threatening to deport any and all undocumented workers, we have created a second-class workforce. These are people whose every waking moment is undermined by the fear of discovery. The safety nets for workers that have been in place since the early 1900s have suddenly disappeared. Undocumented workers find themselves walking a tightrope, high above the ground, inching their way forward and trying desperately not to look down.

Jon Coppelman
Senior Workers Compensation Consultant

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