Question:

I just learned that one of my employees is an illegal alien. Our human resources department completed an I-9 form for him and obtained the appropriate documents from him. The documents looked genuine but turned out to be fake. Now he has injured himself on the job. Is he entitled to workers’ compensation benefits?

Answer:

The California Court of Appeal recently held that an undocumented worker who is injured on the job is entitled to seek workers’ compensation benefits, even if he or she got the job by submitting false documents.

In Farmer Brothers Coffee v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, an employee used a fraudulent Social Security card and a fraudulent green card to obtain employment with Farmer Brothers Coffee. He was subsequently injured on the job. In completing the workers’ compensation claim form, he filled in a false Social Security number. The employer argued that the employee was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits pursuant to the Immigration Reform and Control Act (“IRCA”). It also argued that the employee was not entitled to the benefits because he used a fraudulent Social Security card and green card, and falsely completed the workers’ compensation claim form, to obtain workers’ compensation benefits. The Court disagreed.

California law specifically provides that regardless of immigration status, all applicants, current and former employees are entitled to the protections, rights and remedies available under state law, except reinstatement if it is prohibited by federal law. Furthermore, in the chapter on workers’ compensation, California Labor Code § 3351 defines an employee as “every person in the service of an employer under any appointment or contract of hire or apprenticeship, express or implied, oral or written, whether lawfully or unlawfully, and includes: aliens . . . .”

The federal Immigration Reform and Control Act provides that it is unlawful to hire or to continue to employ an alien that the employer knows to be an “unauthorized alien.” An “unauthorized alien” is defined as one who is not lawfully admitted for permanent residence, or authorized to be so employed by federal immigration and nationality law or by the U.S. Attorney General.

The employer argued that the employment provisions of the IRCA conflict with the California statutes, and that therefore the California statutes have no effect. The Court looked at several issues, including whether the state law actually conflicts with the IRCA. In finding that it did not, the Court noted that if workers’ compensation benefits did depend on an employee’s immigration status, the law on workers’ compensation benefits would, in fact, conflict with the IRCA. Its reasoning was that the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board would then be put in a position of determining whether an employer had complied with the IRCA, determining an injured employee’s immigration status, and determining whether any alien employees used false documents to obtain employment. In other words, the workers’ compensation laws would take on the role of enforcing the immigration laws, in direct conflict with the IRCA.

The employer also tried to argue that workers’ compensation laws apply only to employees hired by the employer in violation of federal law, but not to employees who obtain a job by submitting fraudulent documents. In other words, it argued that if an employer hires an alien knowing that he or she is illegal, the employee would be covered. But if the employer hires the employee relying in good faith on the documents submitted, and believing that the employee is a legal alien, the employee would not be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. The Court held that the Legislature did not intend the workers’ compensation laws to have such a complex meaning or to incorporate federal immigration law.

Finally, the employer argued that by using a fraudulent Social Security card and fraudulent green card to get the job, and putting a false Social Security number on his workers’ compensation claim form, he violated the law which makes it a criminal offense to make a knowingly false or fraudulent material representation for the purpose of obtaining workers’ compensation benefits. The Court disagreed with the employer, noting that the individual obtained employment as a direct result of the use of fraudulent documents, but it did not obtain the compensable injury as a result of those actions.

The end result of the Court’s decision is that an employer cannot deny workers’ compensation benefits to an employee on the basis that he or she is an illegal alien, even if he or she obtained the job by submitting fraudulent documents.
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