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Can illegal immigrants receive workers compensation benefits? MA said, “Yes”.

The Massachusetts Medellin case, finally resolved at the end of 2003, is a good example of how a state can reach a decision that workers compensation laws benefits are available to undocumented workers. Subsequent decisions in other states may have relied on this case. I will report on them later. The MA decision relied on two findings: the validity of employment contracts, and the lack of authority of federal laws over state workers compensation law.

This information is drawn from a 2004 analysis by the National Immigration Law Center.

A cleaner and construction laborer, Guillermo Medellín, sustained lasting injuries when he fell into an eight-foot-deep hole. An administrative law judge for the Department of Industrial Accidents (DIA) ruled that Medellin was eligible for benefits, even after Medellin testified that he was in the country illegally. The insurer then filed an appeal after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002, in Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB, that an undocumented worker could not receive back pay.

The DIA then affirmed the original decision on the two findings noted above. Below is a summary of its reasoning. :

First, the DIA ruled that a contract of employment between an employer and an undocumented worker is an enforceable contract. Second, the DIA ruled that Hoffman does not preempt the interpretation of Massachusetts law as giving undocumented workers an enforceable contract of employment for purposes of workers' compensation.

The DIA noted that it is a well-established principle that states have great latitude under their powers to legislate matters involving "the protection of the lives, limbs, health, comfort, and quiet of all persons." The DIA concluded that mandatory insurance schemes, including workers' compensation, are within these powers.

Medellín v. Cashman KPA, et al., Board No. 03324300, Massachusetts Dept. of Industrial Accidents, Reviewing Board Decision, Dec. 23, 2003.


The basis for this court decision seems to be under attack in several state legislatures. For example, the Maryland State House of Delegates Economic Matters Committee is considering a bill to exclude undocumented workers from the definition of those eligible to recieve workers' compensation payments.

This kind of legislation is part of a larger anti-immigrant effort in many states to exclude undocumented immigrants from state programs including welfare, drivers licenses, etc.

Excluding undocumented immigrants from workers' comp payments will not prevent their injuries on the job, and will very likely shift medical care costs from exploitative employers to taxpayers and those with health insurance. Hospitals with emergency rooms and trauma centers are still obligated to provide emergency medical care, even if there is no WC to pay the bill. Employers and employees with health insurance and workers' comp insurance will pay higher medical costs to cover the uncompensated medical costs that hospitals need to swallow; and local taxpayers end up covering the difference when the local public hospital emergency room loses money.

I agree with Jim Platner. Regardless of one's position about the presence of undocumented workers, denying them access to workers comp benefits will drive these costs into free care -- which pays for a lot of these unjury costs already.

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