Undocumented Workers Are Entitled to Workers’ Compensation Benefits

May 2014

In November 2013, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that undocumented workers are entitled to Iowa workers’ compensation benefits under the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act.

Staff Management v. Jimenez

In Staff Management v. Jimenez, the Iowa Supreme Court confronted the question of whether undocumented workers in Iowa are entitled to receive wage replacement benefits under the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act. The undocumented worker in question, Pascuala Jimenez, had lived in the U.S. since 1991. For the first 10 years of her stay, she had a valid visa to live and work in the United States. Once her visa expired, she continued to live and work in the U.S. as an undocumented worker. Over a 16-year period, Jimenez worked for Proctor & Gamble through a series of temporary worker assignments obtained via staffing agencies, including the last one, Staff Management. When she was diagnosed with two hernias caused by her job, which involved lifting 25-pound boxes of shampoo bottles and 60-pound wooden pallets, Staff Management terminated her. At trial, Staff Management maintained that it fired Jimenez because she failed to produce paperwork verifying that she had authorization to work in the U.S. Jimenez contended that Staff Management was aware of her illegal status and fired her because she was injured on the job.

After she was terminated, Jimenez applied for workers’ compensation benefits and was awarded running healing period benefits from the date of her termination through maximum medical improvement. On appeal, Staff Management raised three arguments related to Jimenez’s status as an undocumented worker:

  • Iowa law does not specifically define “employee” in the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act
  • Iowa law requires a contract of service between employer an employee before a worker is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, something denied Jimenez due to her undocumented status
  • Even if Iowa workers’ compensation law covered undocumented workers, federal immigration law preempts state law and any employment benefits it conveys

The Iowa Supreme Court addressed each of the employer’s arguments, ruling that (1) the statutory definition of “employee” under section 85.61(11) of the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act does not specifically address or exclude undocumented workers; (2) although federal law – specifically, the Immigration Reform and Control Act – prohibits employers from entering into employment contracts of any kind with undocumented workers, the purpose of these laws is to prevent the employment of illegal workers, not strip them of labor protection; and (3) healing period benefits, unlike back pay or vocational rehabilitation benefits, are specifically designed to compensate a worker for injuries by replacing wages lost due a work-related injury. Based on this reasoning, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the grant of healing period benefits to Jimenez.

Contact Keane Law Firm

Because Iowa workers’ compensation law is complex, it is important to work with an experienced lawyer. Contact Attorney Ed Keane today at (712) 234-3088 to discuss your case.

This website has been prepared by Keane Law Firm for informational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. The information is not provided in the course of an attorney-client relationship and is not intended to substitute for legal advice from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.