Undocumented, and Unprotected? In IA, Immigration Status Isn’t Relevant to Receive Work Comp Benefits

02 Aug, 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.

Des Moines, IA – (WorkersCompensation.com) – In Iowa, undocumented workers can receive workers’ compensation benefits, but some attorneys feel that could change in the future.

“So far, the Supreme Court and the Commissioner of the workers’ comp agency have held that the immigration status of any injured worker is not a relevant factor for determining eligibility for workers’ comp benefits,” said Janece Valentine, a work comp attorney in Fort Dodge, IA.

In December of 2013, the State Supreme Court in Iowa ruled in favor of Pascuala Jimenez, who suffered two hernias while working for Proctor and Gamble through a temporary work agency. Through a random check, her Social Security Number didn’t match. A work comp claim was also filed, and appealed by the staffing agency on the grounds she was illegal. They fired her in 2008.

Staff Management, the company who cleared her to work, also participated in E-Verify, the federal program to verify the authenticity of the documentation of the employee. The company, according to court papers, said she was notified “three times” that she needed to update her paperwork, or she could no longer continue. 

The court ruled, “an employment contract with an undocumented worker does not inherently have an illegal purpose, and it is not void as illegal merely because the contract is with an undocumented worker."

“But things could be in flux,” argued Valentine, citing a concurrence written by two justices who wrote that they might make it clear that they would put parameters on how they would look at permanent benefits, but they wouldn’t restrict healing period benefits. “There is some potential for action there.”

In 2014, Pew Research estimated there were 40,000 illegal immigrants living in Iowa, with 62 percent of those coming from Mexico. 

Valentine said if a worker is here in the country illegally, “there’s almost always false paperwork,” but she said that’s the employer’s duty.

“That is their responsibility upon employment,” she said.

Valentine also believes that many undocumented workers do not file a claim, fearful that they will be reported to U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement or that they simply do not know they are entitled to benefits.

“I have a lot people call on behalf of those who are hurt,” she said. “A lot of times I think there’s a concern that the attorney themselves will report them and that’s simply not the case.”

“There’s a lot of intimidation,” Andrew Bribriesco said, a work comp attorney in Bettendorf, IA. “…There’s a fear that they might have ICE come after them if they report a claim. I have had clients come to me that have a valid claim, but are fearful because they don’t want to get deported.”

He said there’s been a drop in claims since the Trump Administration. However, Trump has deported fewer immigrants than President Obama did in “each of the early years of his term,” according to U.S. News and World Report.

“I think it’s the rhetoric,” he said. “The rhetoric wasn’t as prevalent.”

“If the injury already happened, this is where the agencies and the courts need to step in and provide the protections that are needed because otherwise you are giving the employer a pass,” she said. 

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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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