President Obama tread lightly around the issue of immigration reform in his most recent State of the Union address. This represents a change in tact from a President who aggressively sought reform for the past five years. His cautious words come at a time where the politics surrounding the issue have become increasingly delicate. While the politicians search for a solution, there are still 11.7 million illegal immigrants in the United States today that need a job in order to clothe, feed, and shelter their families. But what happens when they are injured on the job? What about workers comp benefits for illegal immigrants?
Of the 11.7 million immigrants living in the United States, 750,000 currently reside in the state of New York. And two out of that 750,000 have made a sizeable impact on New York State workers comp law. In 2008, Luis and Gerardo Lema were contracted by Microtech Contracting to demolish the basement of the New York Hospital of Queens. As the two men demolished rock and dry wall, with each swing of their sledgehammers they accidentally dislodged a metal chimney (flue). It struck them, both men were injured, and neither had legally immigrated into the United States.
The men were paid workers comp benefits by Microtech’s comp insurer as a result of their injuries. After some deliberation, the Lemas decided to file a personal injury suit against the NY Hospital, because they believed the hospital was in violation of the state’s labor laws. Combined, their medical bills totaled $1.5 million, and the court ruled in their favor.
Citing Microtech’s negligence, and that the company had also violated NY’s Immigration Reform and Control Act, the Flushing-based hospital hoped to recover the damages they had paid to Gerardo and Luis Lema. The court ruled that the employment of undocumented workers did not prevent the company from being protected by the state’s workers comp exclusive remedy rules.
The hospital appealed the ruling in an act of desperation, but Microtech refused to budge an inch. Microtech explained that they paid their workers comp premiums to their insurer, and that exclusive remedy provisions should apply in this case because New York workers comp law covers undocumented workers. The New York State Supreme Court once again favored Microtech, and stated that ruling in the hospital’s favor would, “effectively deny (Microtech) the economic protections it acquired under the workers compensation law in return for providing (the brothers) with compensation for their injuries and relieve (the hospital) of its responsibility to ensure a safe construction site for workers.”