This morning, Work Comp Central's Mike Whiteley published a well-researched 2,500+ word article focusing on the plight of undocumented immigrant workers who get hurt on the job. His article, Immigration Reform Expected to Impact Comp Systems, highlights the attempt of the National Employment Law Project to push for passage of immigration reform legislation adopted by the U. S. Senate last year. The legislation would make it much easier for undocumented workers to collect workers comp benefits following injury on the job. It is unfortunate that, given recent political machinations (see Eric Cantor, John Boehner, et al), the Senate's legislation has as much chance of being passed anytime soon as a thrown strawberry has of putting a hole in a battleship.
As of 2013, twenty-eight U. S. state Supreme Courts have ruled that undocumented immigrants are entitled to workers comp benefits. Only one, Wyoming, has ruled otherwise.
We've been writing about this since 2004 - ten years. In 2005 we wrote:
It's one of our nation's dirty little secrets: immigrant workers are doing some of the nation's most dangerous jobs, are being injured and dying disproportionately in those jobs, and denied benefits when injuries and deaths occur. In a political climate where the rhetoric and emotions are high and seemingly getting higher by the day, a "blame the victim" mentality is pervasive.
Unfortunately, the only thing that seems to have changed in ten years are those court rulings. But just because a worker is entitled to benefits doesn't mean the worker is going to get them. And that, I think, is the primary thrust of Mr. Whiteley's article.
In addition to the quite understandable fear of undocumented workers that if they report an injury they'll likely face aggressive retaliation, there is the little problem of a social security number (SSN), which, by definition, undocumented workers don't have. At least, not legal ones. In any event, an SSN seems to be required on the First Report of Injury (FROI). And that's where the trouble begins, because as soon as an injured undocumented worker gives a fraudulently obtained SSN, ICE, Immigration and Custom Enforcement, comes calling.
I say, "seems to be required," because, although the FROI does have a block for the SSN, more and more states are allowing workers to choose to have a random number assigned to them, rather than the SSN. Trouble is, many workers don't know this. It will take time for this to catch on.
Meanwhile, as Mr. Whiteley reports, many workers get caught in the Catch 22 of the "seemingly required" SSN. Moreover, it is not unusual for ethically compromised employers to do everything in their power to prevent benefits being awarded to undocumented workers they have hired. I call these employers American Predators, because they hire workers they know to be in the country illegally and then kick them smartly to the curb when they get hurt on the job. This is probably why experts think that only a small percentage of undocumented worker injuries ever get reported into the workers comp system.
There's an interesting twist to this story. In addition to Mike Whiteley's article, Peter Rousmaniere, working independently, published his own column in Work Comp Central this morning on the same subject. Peter has long advocated for better treatment of undocumented workers, even going so far as to create a blog in 2006 on the subject - Working Immigrants.
Immigration reform seems to be a bridge too far right now. I fear that undocumented workers will continue to be workers compensation's bastard stepchildren. And that is shameful.