Calif. Court Rules Illegal Immigrants Can Get Workers’ Comp

By | November 7, 2005

Illegal immigrants injured on the job are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits despite their legal status, a California state appeals court recently ruled.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled in a case involving Torrance, Calif.-based coffee roaster Farmer Bros. Co. The company had tried to deny workers’ compensation benefits to employee Rafael Ruiz, 35, who was in the country illegally.

Ruiz claimed he injured his shoulders, back, neck and hands by repeatedly lifting heavy sacks of coffee beans, according to his attorney’s case file.

Farmers Bros. argued that Ruiz was not entitled to benefits because federal immigration laws superseded the state’s workers’ comp system, which provides medical care and disability benefits to injured employees.

The court disagreed, upholding an earlier decision against Farmer Bros. by the state Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board.

In a unanimous ruling, the three-judge panel said, “California law has expressly declared immigration status irrelevant to the issue of liability to pay compensation to an injured worker,” ac-cording to the Associated Press.

Attorney Kari Krogseng of San Leandro, Calif., who filed a brief on behalf of the California Applicants’ Attorneys Association, which represents injured workers, told the Los Angeles Times that the decision affirms “both the common sense application of Calif-rnia law and what every other court in the country has routinely found: that federal immigration law does not pre-empt state workers’ compensation laws.”

There was no immediate comment from Farmer Bros.; a spokesman did not immediately respond to a message the Times left after hours at corporate headquarters.

Some advocates for tougher immigration control criticized the ruling.

“We can’t reward people for breaking the law,” Andy Ramirez, a spokesman for Friends of the Border Patrol, a Covina, Calif.-based group that sends members to patrol the U.S. border with Mexico, told the AP.

However, others in the insurance industry believe the ruling is just.

“An injured worker is an injured worker and should be entitled to benefits,” said Nicole Mahrt, director of public affairs for the western region of the American Insurance Association. “We don’t disagree with this ruling. Someone injured on the job should get the medical care they need and deserve regardless of immigration status. Insurers are not immigration officers. [Immigration status is] an issue for the employers.

“Even before this ruling came out, AIA’s position was that injured workers should get benefits if they are hurt on the job,” Mahrt added.

The state Department of Finance estimated that 2.6 million illegal immigrants live in California.

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