Workplace Injuries Do Not Discriminate Between Legal and Illegal

Workers’ compensation laws were created to compensate an employee for injuries sustained while on the job. One of the most debated areas of workers’ compensation is that which refers to the discussion about whether workers who have illegally entered the same protection in the workplace that legal employees have. Some argue that illegal immigrants should NOT be entitled to compensation when they are injured while working, because they are not fully legal employees, and in the first place, they should not be here. Others claim that illegal immigrants SHOULD be covered by workers’ compensation laws, in this way employers would not have the incentive to hire illegal and would be a way to avoid the responsibility of workers compensation. States vary in the way they consider this issue. Very recently, South Carolina ruled in favor of giving coverage to illegal workers.

Curiel v. EMS
In Curiel v. Environmental Management Services the Supreme Court of South Carolina unanimously ruled that illegal immigrants are eligible for workers’ compensation if they are injured at work. In that case Curiel, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, was a construction worker for Environmental Management Services (EMS). While at work, he was injured in the eye and applied for workers’ compensation benefits due to the injury. EMS refused to pay because the company claimed that Curiel was not an employee in accordance with the law.

Illegal to pay illegal
EMS based its case on the constitutional argument that the Supremacy of the precepts of the Constitution invalidates the ordinance on compensation to workers in South Carolina. In general terms, said Supremacy establishes that any state law that is in conflict with a federal law is void. EMS argued that the federal law that makes illegal the hiring of illegal aliens prevails over the state law on workers’ compensation that defines an employee as “any person involved in a job … whether it has been legally or illegally employed.” Thus, EMS argued that state law cannot be enforced on illegal workers and Curiel could not collect benefits.

Sentence in the case of Curiel
For several reasons, the court ruled that Curiel should be awarded workers’ compensation for his injury. Part of this judgment on Curiel was based on public policy reasons. The court established that if employers could escape responsibility for claims made by illegal immigrants, then sentencing in favor of EMS could only encourage employers to continue hiring illegal workers.

The court was not persuaded of the argument regarding supremacy because it provides that the text and purpose of the federal immigration law was not intended to “undermine or diminish” any protections in state labor law. Thus, the two laws were not in conflict with each other. However, if Congress determines, it can change the law if it is in conflict.

The Future
Two sections of the Constitution allow Congress to act to prohibit similar sentences in the future, that of the aforementioned Supremacy and that of Commerce. That of the Supremacy will allow Congress to explicitly nullify the benefits of compensation to workers who are illegal due to the provisions of the Immigration law. The Commerce Clause grants Congress the exclusive ability to regulate interstate commerce. Congress could pass a law that prohibits paying workers’ compensation benefits to illegal immigrants who are injured in interstate commerce. This kind of law could contemplate a long political battle to become law and an eventual battle in court, if passed.


by Abdullah Sam
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