Undocumented, and Unprotected? OH Makes Headlines for ‘Workers First Act’


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.


Columbus, OH (Workerscompensation.com) – While undocumented workers currently have access to full workers’ comp benefits, that could soon change via legislation cleared by the Ohio Statehouse Tuesday that would eliminate benefits for illegal aliens in the Buckeye State.

The Ohio Workers First Act passed the House by a vote of 62-30. 

“We were all sent here by Ohio citizens to serve Ohio’s citizens,” said Rep. Larry Householder, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill. “It’s high time we start doing that in this chamber.”

Rep. Householder said current law creates an “unintended incentive” for “rogue businesses” to hire undocumented workers because they are typically cheaper. He said when they get hurt, they become the responsibility of the system rather than the businesses that broke the law.

“Ohioans have a right to expect that their government will look out for their interests, and that’s especially true when it comes to jobs,” Rep. Householder said. 

But not everyone is happy with the move.  

“For years, if you worked, you were covered under the law,” said Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO. “This is shift to that and we aren’t happy about that.”

He said for all of the good employers out there following the law, it gives those ‘bad actors’ who are employing those undocumented workers the ability to do that without any repercussions.

“We think it’s inhumane. We think it incentivizes bad behavior,” said Burga, who testified against the legislation in a hearing before statehouse members.

The legislation now goes to the Senate.

“It’s a really bad situation that we now find ourselves in and I’m hoping the Senate will understand that,” he said. 

Pew Research estimates there are about 95,000 undocumented workers in Ohio, according to the data college in 2014. 

“Our point is that if they provide the work, they should be given the coverage,” said Jim Tobin, associate director, Social Concerns, Ohio Catholic Conference, who also testified against the measure. He said they support comprehensive immigration reform.

The Catholic Church typically supports causes where people feel they are underrepresented.

“I could be standing on the chicken processing line and I could be legal and the person next to me isn’t and the boiler blows up and I’m hurt and you’re not,” he said. “These folks are working very hard and have very little regress should something go wrong.”

The House okayed similar legislation under House Bill 27 as part of its Ohio Bureau Workers’ Compensation budget, but the language was removed by the Senate.  

Ohio House Minority Leader, Rep. Fred Strahorn called the legislation a “political stunt.”

“Corporations that break the law and hire undocumented workers should have to take responsibility for workplace injuries — regardless of an employee’s immigration status,” he said. “Under HB 380, employers who rig the system will get off scot-free and taxpayers will be left with the bill.”

If passed as is by the Senate, it’s unclear if Republican Governor John Kasich would sign the legislation. 

“We are anxious to see how this will progress,” Tobin said.

Senator Jay Hottinger, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Insurance Committee, told the Columbus Dispatch has questioned whether the bill would even be effective.

“In a strange way, while the goal is to crack down on the hiring of illegal immigrants, it could, some argue, have the opposite effect of that,” Sen. Hottinger told the Dispatch. “If there is not going to be consequences for them, and it’s no longer going to show up on an employer’s workers’ comp claim, for what I hope would be a very small handful of bad actors, it could have the perverse effect of encouraging the hiring of illegal immigrants.”

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