Undocumented, and Unprotected? Benefits for Illegal Immigrants Are Tough in ID

09.27.2017


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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Boise, ID (WorkersCompensation.com) – Idaho is in the minority when it comes to giving workers’ compensation benefits to illegal immigrants. State law makes it extremely difficult to obtain benefits to those not in the country legally.

“We deal with a lot of undocumented workers,” said Erik Johnson, Idaho Legal Aid. “The number one issue is if they get injured. They can get the medical care provided because that’s all clear cut. And they can get the lost wages until they are ready to go back to work, but when it comes to permanent disability, that’s a huge problem because their worth is based on what they would make in Mexico.”

That, said Johnson, is far less than what it would be here in the in United States.

“It’s hard for them to get an attorney,” Johnson said. “There’s no money to be made here.”

The last major change to Idaho law came in 1996, when farm workers were forced to be covered under the state’s workers’ compensation law. At the time, the state estimated there would be 6,000 new policies added by removing the so-called “agricultural exemption” from state law, according to The Associated Press.

On average, there are about 50,000 farm workers in Idaho at any given time, according to information compiled by the Idaho Department of Labor. Pew Research estimates Idaho is home to as many as 45,000 illegal immigrants. Idaho is the fourth largest dairy producer in the United States, according to the Idaho Dairy Industry, and an estimate of 85 percent of the state’s 8,300 dairy workers are immigrants.

Dr. Philip Watson, an associate professor at the University of Idaho in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, said in the dairy industry, many of those workers are illegal.

“If you talk to the dairy farmers, they will tell you everyone they employ is legal because they won’t hire anyone who doesn’t have papers,” Dr. Watson said. “They also argue they are not allowed to question documentation because that is racial profiling.”

Idaho is also faced with low unemployment — 3.7% — one of the lowest in the United States, according to Idaho’s Department of Labor. That, in itself, has created a labor shortage.

“These are jobs only immigrants will do,” dairy farmer Hans Nederend told The Idaho Statesman. “That’s just a fact.”

Johnson said it’s his understanding that there is no effort to change the law.

“It’s the way the law is interpreted,” Johnson said. “…this is a conservative state with a conservative legislature with a conservative Supreme Court. I’m sure the vast majority would have no interest in changing that.”

And farm accidents in Idaho do happen.

In February of 2016, Ruperto Vazquez-Carrera was killed on a dairy farm in Jerome County after mistakenly driving a truck into a manure pond on the property. He was able to get out of the truck and swim, but drowned, according to the Idaho State Journal.

The farm was fined $5,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

“That raised a flag to us, that there was something happening out there,” said David Kearns, OSHA area director, in an interview with the Idaho State Journal. “We’re dealing with vulnerable workers in very unique and continually changing situations.”

Without fair treatment when it comes to workers’ comp, some argue, employers are encouraged to break the law.

“Employers have an incentive to unlawfully hire undocumented workers, not follow OSHA health and safety guidelines, and not have to worry about liability for their actions,” said Paula Branter, of Workplace Fairness, an advocacy group. “There is definitely an underground economy created when workers have no path to citizenship and employers have financial incentives to exploit them and no detriments for doing so.” 

She said the group was not specifically involved in state-by-state legislation, but was supportive of changes to require Idaho to grant workers’ comp benefits to illegal immigrants. 

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