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Are Undocumented Workers Entitled to Workers' Compensation Benefits?


Yes! The California workers’ compensation system is designed to provide treatment and benefits for injured workers, regardless of immigration status. In fact, California employment protection laws and federal immigration laws are treated separately. Workers’ comp cases do not address immigrations status and immigration laws do not address workers’ compensation benefits.


But filing for workers’ comp as an undocumented worker can be more complicated. And while you are entitled to certain benefits, you are not guaranteed the same benefits as a documented worker.


Benefits you ARE entitled to


Undocumented employees are foreign nationals who work and reside within the United States without legal permission. Some may have entered the country illegally. Other may have entered the U.S. legally but have let their visa expire. In California, either scenario can still lead to benefits should a workplace injury occur.


The California Labor Code Section 1171.5 explicitly states that all workers, regardless of immigration status, are eligible for the same rights and protections. This includes medical treatment and compensation for missed work. An undocumented worker also has the same options to settle their claim as a documented worker.


When filing a workers’ comp claim, you should be as honest as possible. Report the incident ASAP, tell coworkers and colleagues what happened, and write down as much information about the nature of the injury as you can. When in doubt about what to disclose, contact an attorney for advice. They can help you navigate the workers’ comp process as an undocumented worker and answer any questions.


NOTE: Falsifying employment documents is illegal under federal law. BUT false documents CANNOT be considered workers’ compensation fraud.


Let’s consider the case of Vincente Salas v Sierra Chemical


In the Salas v Sierra Chemical case, the California Supreme Court upheld that undocumented workers have the right to certain workers’ comp benefits and are entitled to retaliate against employee discrimination.


Vincente Salas was a worker for the Sierra Chemical Company. After working there for a few years, Salas injured his back while stacking crates. The company initially accommodated his injury and assigned him lighter work. But after Salas filed for workers’ compensation, they stopped and refused to allow him back to work unless he was 100% recovered. Salas then filed a disability discrimination lawsuit against the company.


In retaliation, Sierra Chemical revealed to the court that they had discovered Salas’s lack of documentation. But the trial court ruled that immigration status had no bearing on the discrimination lawsuit and that it did not constitute workers’ comp fraud. If benefits could be denied based on legal status, then unethical employers could take advantage of undocumented workers by providing work up until they became injured or sick, then refuse any kind of compensation or employment.


Sierra Chemical eventually appealed Salas’s discrimination case and so it was brought before the California Supreme Court. The Court upheld that an employer’s discovery of its employee’s undocumented status cannot dismiss the employee’s workers’ comp claim. The Court, however, also concluded that since it is illegal to knowingly hire an undocumented worker, Salas could not return to work at the Sierra Chemical Company. Additionally, Salas would not be able to recover pay for the period after his employer discovered he was undocumented.


Benefits you ARE NOT entitled to


Under the United States Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, it is unlawful for an employer to knowingly hire someone that is unauthorized to work in the U.S. So while you are still entitled to workers’ comp benefits as an injured worker, you may be denied continued employment. And any worker who used false documents in order to obtain employment may be fined and prosecuted.


For example, if you are injured at work your employer may offer you modified work to accommodate the injury. But as soon as your employer becomes aware of you undocumented status, it is now illegal for them to let you return to work in any capacity. In this scenario, you are denied work because of your immigration status, not because of your disability. Unlike in the Salas case (where Salas was initially refused work solely due to his back injury), this would not be considered wrongful discrimination. And you would be denied temporary disability benefits as well as job displacement benefits.


Workers’ compensation is a complex issue even for documented workers. If you are unsure of how to proceed with a workers’ comp claim, or are questioning whether filing a claim is in your best interest, don’t hesitate to contact a lawyer. An experienced workers’ compensation attorney will not only be able to explain which benefits you qualify for, they will fight to ensure you receive them.


Barsoum Law is here to support you and protect your interests throughout the entire workers’ comp process. We offer a personal focus and individualized care that large corporate firms do not. And our multilingual, multicultural team is dedicated to making sure you obtain the compensation you deserve.

If you have suffered a work-related injury or illness, Barsoum Law can and will help. We have represented thousands of injured workers throughout California the past 25 years. Contact us today at 877-299-1555 or info@barsoumlaw.com to schedule a consultation with a member of our team.


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