Undocumented, and Unprotected? Court Cases Set the Foundation in RI

26 Jun, 2018 Phil Yacuboski


This is the next article in WorkersCompensation.com's “Undocumented, and Unprotected?” series, as our writers explore what is it like to be an undocumented worker in the U.S., and what it means regarding workers' compensation.

Providence, RI (WorkersCompensation.com) – In Rhode Island, undocumented workers hurt on the job can receive workers’ comp benefits — not necessarily attributed to a state law, but rather court cases that have paved the way for benefits.

“Clarity would always be preferred, one way or the other, in my opinion,” said Bill Gardner, a workers’ comp attorney in Providence. “So, yes I'd like to see it clarified.”

He said while case law is not “on point,” it makes the general conclusion that benefits can be awarded. He cited the case of Villa vs. Eastern Wire Products. In 1982, Rodrigo Villa got his hand pulled into a machine, crushing his left index finger and injuring his arm.

The case was overturned on appeal.

While he initially was illegal and using a false Social Security Number, Villa eventually became a legal resident alien and was awarded benefits.

The judge, ruling in Villa’s favor wrote of the previous judge’s decision:

“His obvious disapproval of employee's method of entry into this country cannot form the basis for a denial of compensation benefits. It is vital that the trial commissioner adhere to the objective standards enacted by the Legislature and reiterated by this court that prevent unreasonable and arbitrary determinations regarding an injured employee's eligibility for workers' compensation.”

In another case, Menedez vs. Aid Maintenance Company, the trial judge determined the claimant was an independent contractor and denied benefits for that reason. 

“There was an inquiry into citizenship status being viewed as an effort to ascertain whether taxes were paid by the claimant and not an attempt to deny the claim based on status,” he said.

Gardner said the only “real” time it comes up is when there’s a debate to offer light duty employment when the employer becomes aware that the claimant does not have legal status in the United States. 

“In a situation where the employer would be ‘hiring’ or ‘rehiring’ the claimant,” he said. “However, even then the concerns are unrelated to work comp and are instead related to other employment issues.”

Much like the earlier case, if a client admitted they worked under a false Social Security Number, it would have no bearing on the case.

“It’s irrelevant for purposes of Rhode Island workers’ comp, so it’s a non-issue,” Gardner said. 

Regardless, he said while there can be some hesitancy, most undocumented workers who are hurt on the job, do apply for benefits.

“I felt like the percentage of undocumented workers that did not apply for workers’ comp benefits was roughly similar to the number of citizen injured workers that did not apply,” he said.  “The reasons were different. Fear of arrest versus not wanting to cause a scene, but the majority of injured workers, undocumented and citizens, applied.”

Heiny Maldonado, executive director of Fuerza Laboral, a workers’ rights group in Rhode Island, which focuses on immigrant workers and economic justice said the issue is of big concern with people in her community.

“There are obstacles,” Maldonado said through a translator. “A lot of the times the employer tries to convince the worker not to file for benefits. And in another instance, the worker is hurt realizes they have to deal with the government at some point and they are afraid to do that because they are afraid that information could be shared with ICE.”

She said most accidents happen in construction and factory work.

Rhode Island has about 30,000 undocumented workers, according to numbers compiled in 2014 by Pew Research.

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    About The Author

    • Phil Yacuboski

      Phil Yacuboski is a freelance writer based in Maryland. He writes about business, healthcare and technology. In his spare time, Phil enjoys the outdoors and photography.

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