This is the next article in WorkersCompensation.com's “Undocumented, and Unprotected?” series, as our writers explore what is it like to be an undocumented worker in the U.S., and what it means regarding workers' compensation.
Atlanta, GA (WorkersCompensation.com) – Much like many other states, undocumented workers are given workers’ compensation benefits, because Georgia’s statute is silent on the word “aliens” — both legal and illegal.
“They are entitled to workers’ comp benefits just like anybody else,” said Bryan Ramos, a workers’ comp attorney in Atlanta.
He said while there have been court challenges in the past to change the law, they have been struck down.
In order to get workers’ comp as an illegal immigrant, the person must prove they are employed and then the state will evaluate if the relationship is valid.
The current statute is based on a case that is more than 20 years old.
In 1994, Rosendo Beltran lost two fingers in a piece of machinery while working for the Dynasty Sample Company. After filing for benefits, he was fired because he provided false documentation at the time he was hired. Even though he misrepresented his status, he was granted benefits by a judge.
In a 2014 study, the Pew Research Center estimated there are about 375,000 illegal immigrants in Georgia, a number that dropped by about 55,000 people since the last estimates were taken in 2009. A majority of the undocumented workers are from Mexico.
“The problem is when they return back to work,” said Ramos. “Now it’s official that this person is undocumented and can’t be re-employed. That’s where Georgia is in a bit of quagmire because of this situation.”
Can they be re-hired? It’s unclear.
Ramos said he’s aware of people being deported in other states, once they are learned to be undocumented, but said it’s not happened to any of his clients.
He said a valid Social Security number isn’t even questioned throughout the process, because the workers’ comp board generates a number once a claim is filed.
“It’s not really an issue for us,” he said. “The only place where it come in effect is if we were trying to get medical records. Logistically it’s difficult. In many cases, the medical center uses their own system that goes by the date of birth, not the Social Security number.”
There have been crackdowns involving falsified paperwork. The Naples Daily News reported in December that more than 50 injured workers were accused of using false Social Security numbers under an identity fraud statute. In 2011, lawmakers in Georgia created a penalty for “aggravated identity fraud” to crack down on those using false paperwork to gain employment.
Ramos said there should be a higher hourly wage in Georgia, which he thinks would crack down on the problem.
“These people who are injured that are immigrants that are undocumented are working very, very dangerous jobs,” he said. “And for low wages.”
He said the employers typically know if workers are legal.
“There should be more pressure on the employers to hire legal workers,” he said. “If they didn’t hire them, then we wouldn’t have this problem.”
Charles Kuck, an immigration attorney in Atlanta who also handles deportation cases, said the workers’ comp law involving undocumented workers is the way it is for a reason.
“I think it’s intentionally vague,” he said. “If you start excluding undocumented people from workers’ comp, particularly in manufacturing, I think it pushes employers to hire undocumented workers because they know that they get a claim, they’d dismiss it.”
He said he doesn’t think anything will change anytime soon.
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