Ronnie Ramroop was an employee of Flexo-Craft Printing in New York. In March of 1995 he caught his hand in a press, crushing four fingers. After seven surgeries, two fingers were amputated. It goes without saying that this is a work-related injury; workers compensation paid the medical bills, loss of function benefits (Ronnie lost 75% of the use of his hand), along with indemnity for lost wages. Ronnie received benefits through January 2000, at which point his eligibility ended.
Ronnie then applied for the "additional benefits" available under New York law. To receive these benefits, Ronnie had to prove that the impairment to his wage-earning capacity was due solely to the work-related injury. That's where Ronnie's claim hit a big snag: Ronnie is an undocumented worker. Yes, his inability to work is connected to his rather severe injury, but it is also related to the fact that he is not qualified to work in this country. As the court put it, Ronnie's appeal puts into clear focus the tension between the statute's voc rehab objective to return an injured worker to the marketplace and the re-employment of a worker who is not allowed to work. Some tension, indeed!
The NY Court of Appeals, in a 5 to 1 vote, has denied Ronnie's claim for additional benefits. They concluded that it was not the Legislature's intent to "restore to re-employment" a worker who cannot be lawfully employed.
The Lone Dissent
The dissent by Justice Ciparick raises an interesting issue. The judge quotes Chief Judge Cardozo, who emphasized the humanitarian purposes of the comp statute, with its goal of ensuring that injured employees "might be saved from becoming one of the derelicts of society, a fragment of human wreckage." Judge Cipatrick believes that the right to full benefits should be considered an absolute, unrelated in any way to a worker's immigration status. For this (dissenting) judge, there are no tiered benefits. All workers are entitled to all the benefits.
Virtually all the comp statutes in the US were drafted before the issue of undocumented workers became visible. A number of states have begun to step into the documentation and enforcement void created by a paralyzed Congress: they are drafting punitive laws on the hiring of undocumented workers (and thus giving rise to great concerns among American businesses). Some of these same states are toying with the idea of curtailing comp benefits for undocumented workers. This would be the final step in the creation of a truly third-class workforce, with sub-standard working conditions, wages and protections. We will have come full circle, with the fears of Judge Cardozo fully realized: millions of essential jobs performed by a marginalized workforce - derelicts of society, fragments of human wreckage.