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Workers’ Compensation for Undocumented Immigrants

Casey Woodruff

undefinedWorkers’ compensation is a heavily regulated insurance program that employers pay into to cover injuries that their employees suffer on the job. As with any insurance program, there are questions about who qualifies for coverage under workers’ compensation. One important question about the extent of coverage was whether undocumented workers qualified for protection under their employers’ insurance programs. Illinois courts settled that issue in 2008 in the case of Economy Packing Co. v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, holding that undocumented workers were covered under their employer’s workers’ compensation insurance.

What is Workers’ Compensation?

Workers’ compensation is a legal system that was designed as a stand-in for the court system in cases where employees suffered injuries on the job. Rather than forcing employees to sue their employers and demonstrate negligence on the employer’s part to recover, the employee can simply make a claim against their employer’s workers’ compensation coverage. This may still involve a dispute between the worker and the employer’s insurance company, but it operates in a streamlined manner, moving through a special court system designed specifically to handle workers’ compensation issues, the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission.

Workers’ Compensation Covers Undocumented Immigrants

Decisions by the Workers’ Compensation Commission can be appealed into the state court system, which allow courts to settle important questions of workers’ compensation law. This happened in 2008 when the 1st Appellate Court of Illinois ruled on the issue of whether workers’ compensation covered undocumented immigrants. They held that it did for two reasons.

First, the workers’ compensation statute itself states that “aliens” are covered by the statute, with no reference to their legal status. The court determined that undocumented workers fell into the same definition of aliens that Illinois courts had been using for almost a century, and that there was no reason to change that.

The employer argued that federal law forbids employing undocumented workers and should trump state law in this area. The court disagreed, holding that requiring the payment of workers’ compensation benefits to undocumented immigrants actually furthered the federal purpose of discouraging the hiring of undocumented workers. The court argued that if workers’ compensation did not cover undocumented aliens, then those workers would become more attractive to hire. Employers are the ones responsible for paying the workers’ compensation premiums, so they would have to pay less if they employed undocumented workers. Extending the benefits equally regardless of legal status removes that incentive from the decision.

Workers’ compensation is a complicated combination of an insurance system and a court system. If you believe that you qualify for workers’ compensation and want to learn more about your rights, contact an Elgin workers’ compensation attorney today. The professionals at Woodruff Johnson & Evans are prepared to assist you with your case.

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