Undocumented, and Unprotected? MT: Illegal Immigrants are Entitled to ‘Same Coverage as Anyone Else’

11.15.2017


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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Helena, MT (WorkersCompensation.com) – There is no clear state law in Montana on allowing undocumented workers to receive workers’ compensation benefits, and it appears efforts to revive a fight in the state legislature won’t happen any time soon. There’s also no law that specifically bars undocumented workers either, meaning illegal immigrants receive benefits just like anyone else.

“Provided there’s coverage, which can be an issue sometimes, they are entitled to the same coverage as anyone else,” said Mark Kovacich, a workers’ comp attorney in Great Falls, MT.

However, Mike Marsh, President of Midland Claims, Inc., the state’s second largest insurance provider, said it is a “rare” occurrence where a claim is filed involving an undocumented worker.

“We have a really strong state Constitution and I would find it really out of the ordinary that they wouldn’t get it,” Marsh said.

Marsh said his company hasn’t handled any claim involving an illegal immigrant. He said the company has handled more than 30,000 claims since 2001. 

In 2011, the Montana House of Representatives passed a bill to ban illegal immigrants from receiving workers’ compensation benefits. It passed by a 60-40 vote. Those sponsoring the bill claimed it would do two things: Send a message to employers who are employing undocumented workers, and help fix the high cost of workers’ comp insurance in Montana.

Montana typically ranks as one of the highest states when it comes to workplace accidents and fatalities, according to the Great Falls Tribune.

“The victim here is the illegal alien because they are being used and paid less and it’s a sad situation,” said Senator David Howard, a member of the Montana legislature since 2009.

Sen. Howard introduced an amendment to ban any kind of benefits for illegal immigrants unless they were of a “certain category” that is determined by the federal government.

However, he said the legislation ran into a problem in the courts.

“We have a very liberal Supreme Court in Montana,” he said. “And they threw it out.”

The Pew Research Center estimates Montana has less than 5,000 illegal immigrants in its statewide population of slightly more than 1 million people. The numbers were collected in a wide-ranging survey in 2014. The study was unable to determine the countries of origin of those immigrants.

Statewide, unemployment is 3.9%, lower than the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many experts argue immigrant labor is used more often in states where unemployment rates are low.

Senator Howard believes it’s a problem that no one wants to address.

“It’s like what’s under a napkin,” he said. “We all know it’s there, but how much is there, we don’t know. A lot of these people are taking the jobs of Montanans and they are being victimized by the fact that they are getting the benefits that they should get.”

During the 2011 fight, assistant general counsel to the Montana State Fund, Montana’s insurance carrier, said every year, they have six to seven claimants whose Social Security number does not match, according to an article published by watchdog.org. If the legislation passed, Montana would have been the first state in the country to ban workers’ comp for undocumented workers.

Senator Howard said he doesn’t believe he’ll fight for the same law again.

“I can’t do it with a democrat governor,” he said of Gov. Steve Bullock. “The reason this whole system isn’t working is because the federal government has been a miserable failure.”

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