Undocumented, and Unprotected? AL Comp Coverage System is ‘Better for Workers AND Employers’

11.03.2017


By Phil Yacuboski

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.

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Montgomery, AL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Alabama provides full workers’ compensation benefits under the law, despite someone being in the country illegally, according to established case law.

“They are entitled to the same benefits that a U.S. citizen is,” said Bernard Nomberg, a workers’ comp attorney in Birmingham, who in the past several months has wrapped up four workers’ comp cases involving undocumented immigrants. “We’ve handled numerous cases from people who are not here lawfully and we’ve gotten the right benefits approved the same as if they were born here.”

In 2005, an Alabama judge ruled Omar Santos-Cruz, who was 17 when he was hurt in a housing construction project, was able to receive full benefits. The Associated Press reported the teen must receive benefits of $240 per week for the rest of his life and payment of all medical bills. Santos-Cruz was partially paralyzed after falling through a window. The case was never appealed.

As is the case in many states, there is an issue of stolen Social Security numbers or those illegal immigrants who present false identification.

Nomberg said in his experience, it hasn’t been a deterrent to pursuing benefits on behalf of the injured worker. He’s been practicing law for 23 years in Alabama along with his brother who has been practicing law for 15 years.

“I guess it can, but it really hasn’t prevented us in our cases,” he said. “Employers benefit by using the labor and it is our position that by representing these workers is that these employers have a moral and legal obligation to take care of these workers once they get hurt.”

Those working for immigrants’ rights agree with the decision to allow undocumented workers benefits if they are hurt on the job. 

“That’s part of the statute and it’s the way the statute has been interpreted,” said Naomi Tsu, deputy legal director of the Immigrants Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It is part of the balance that was struck that is totally unrelated to immigration status.”

Tsu, who works on behalf of immigrants in the deep south, has represented clients in cases of wage discrimination, human trafficking and workers’ compensation.

“If you’re injured on the job, you want to be treated immediately and not have to wait to sue your employer (sic) and your employer doesn’t want to be sued because those cases tend to be a lot more costly for an employer than a workers’ comp claim,” she said. “We’re happy that this is the case in many states,” she said.

In some places, like Florida and Arizona, once a worker files a claim, it has been reported that they are then deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Tsu said she was unaware of that happening in Alabama.

“In Alabama, running employees through the e-verification system is the law, so I would assume most employers are following the law,” she said.

Tsu said Alabama falls in line with many other states.

“It’s better for the workers and its better for the employers,” she said.   

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