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Illegal Immigrants Covered by Nebraska Workers' Comp System: Court

January 9, 2013
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Illegal immigrants are entitled to workers' compensation disability benefits, Nebraska's Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 4.

Numerous courts across the country have similarly found that undocumented employees are covered by their state workers' comp system, according to the Nebraska high court's opinion in Moyera v. Quality Pork International.

Those courts concluded that denying workers' comp benefits to illegal immigrants creates a financial incentive to hire them because it allows an employer to escape liability for worker injuries, giving that employer an unfair advantage over competitors who follow the law, Nebraska's high court said in its opinion.

Additionally, state courts across the country have held that illegal immigrants can sue under tort law for injuries suffered at work, the court said. So it makes little sense to allow illegal immigrants to recover full damages under tort law but not under workers' comp law, because under workers' comp law "employees give up the complete compensation that they might recover under tort law in exchange for no-fault benefits that they quickly receive for most economic losses from work-related injuries," the Nebraska Supreme Court said in its opinion.

In the case at hand, a forklift ran over Ricardo Moyera's right foot in 2008, breaking several of the 29-year-old's foot bones. Nerve blocks failed to relieve his pain, requiring him to take narcotic medications, and the injury caused a "moderate gait derangement," which generated additional hip and lower back pain.

In 2010, Quality Pork's unnamed insurer notified the employer that it would terminate paying Moyera temporary partial disability benefits and begin paying him permanent partial disability benefits.

Quality Pork then audited its files and learned Moyera did not have proper immigration documents. But the court record states the employer denied its audit stemmed from learning the paying of permanent disability benefits would commence.

The case went to trial, and a judge found that Moyera, who used a fictitious name to obtain his employment at Quality Pork, sustained a permanent total loss of earning power.

The judge awarded Moyera future medical treatment for his injury and the secondary gait disturbance. The judge also rejected the employer's argument that Moyera was not entitled to benefits for loss of earning capacity because of his illegal residency status.

An appeals panel affirmed.

Quality Pork argued that Moyera is not entitled to disability benefits because he is an undocumented worker, citing a 2005 Nebraska Supreme Court ruling that undocumented workers are not entitled to vocational benefits because they are not legally employable in the United States.

In Moyera's case, the Supreme Court said it recognizes that vocational benefits and permanent total disability benefits are closely related.

But it explained that although vocational services are intended to help a worker move into a new job, a workers' comp court can't order retraining for a different career when an employee is not eligible to work in the United States because of their immigration status.

In contrast, disability benefits are awarded when a worker can no longer work in the United States or elsewhere, the court said.

"We conclude that the (workers' comp) Act covers illegal aliens," the Nebraska high court said. "We also conclude that the Act does not preclude an award of PTD benefits for illegal aliens. Finally, we conclude that the trial judge was not clearly wrong in finding that Moyera's injury to his foot had resulted in pain to his back that interfered with his ability to perform the work he had previously performed. Thus, the trial judge's finding of permanent total disability was not clearly wrong."

Roberto Ceniceros writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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