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Undocumented workers who are injured on the job can receive workers compensation benefits in Iowa, the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled unanimously.
Pascuala Jimenez entered the United States from Mexico in 1991 with a visa that was valid for 10 years, court records show. Her visa was not extended after its expiration, but Ms. Jimenez remained in the United States as an undocumented worker.
She began working with Iowa City, Iowa-based temporary staffing agency Staff Management in 2001, records show. She was assigned to work for a Procter & Gamble Co. facility in Iowa City, where she was a line leader and staff supervisor.
After experiencing pain and dizziness while lifting products and pallets in September 2007, Ms. Jimenez was diagnosed with two work-related hernias, records show. She had underwent surgery, but remained in pain. That delayed her return to work and ultimately required her to receive help from coworkers when she came back to work at the P&G facility.
Staff Management terminated Ms. Jimenez in January 2008, citing her lack of U.S. work authorization in the United States. The company contended that Ms. Jimenez's firing was unrelated to her injury, though Ms. Jimenez argued that her employer knew her status and fired her because of her physical limitations.
Ms. Jimenez's medical condition worsened and she was diagnosed with another hernia in 2010, records show. A workers comp deputy commissioner found that Ms. Jimenez was due “running healing period” workers comp benefits because the hernia was related to her previous work injury.
The commissioner ordered Staff Management to pay workers comp benefits from date of Ms. Jimenez's 2007 injury until she could be determined to reach maximum medical improvement. The company argued on appeal that her undocumented status made her ineligible to receive comp benefits under Iowa law, records show.
However, the Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner and Iowa's Polk County District Court affirmed the award.
In its ruling Friday in Staff Management and New Hampshire Insurance Co. v. Pascuala Jimenez, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the lower court rulings. The state high court noted that undocumented workers are not included in a list of people who cannot be defined as “employees” under the state’s workers comp law.
“It is not our role to add to the list of excluded workers or employees. That is a policy decision the legislature must make,” the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously.
Though Staff Management argued that the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 invalidated Ms. Jimenez’s employment agreement with the firm, the Supreme Court said federal law can’t be used to deny benefits to undocumented workers.
Taking the stance that undocumented workers are not covered by state comp law would undermine the law “by encouraging employers to hire undocumented workers because the employers would not be liable under the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act for any injuries those workers sustained,” the court ruled.
While the high court affirmed Ms. Jimenez’s benefits, it did reverse a portion of benefits awarded for the brief period of time that she returned to work at Staff Management and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.