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February 12, 2009
Undocumented Alien Entitled to Comp Benefits, Court Says

An employee’s status as an undocumented alien doesn’t block her from collecting workers’ comp benefits if she’s injured on the job, an Illinois court of appeals has ruled. The court’s decision puts Illinois among the growing number of state courts handing down similar rulings allowing comp benefits for undocumented aliens.

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“Roberta” worked as a chicken deboner at a poultry slaughterhouse, Economy Packing Company of Cook County. She later admitted that when she applied to work there, she didn’t have the necessary paperwork to legally obtain employment in the United States and that, when she applied for her position at Economy, she presented documents that she received from a source other than the government.

She slipped one day at work, hit the wall, and fell to the floor, striking her head, right shoulder, hip, and buttocks. She collected comp benefits for her injuries, including significant medical expenses. Eventually, a doctor recommended that she return to work, but permanently restricted her from lifting over 10 pounds and from working above her shoulder level.

These restrictions barred her return to her assembly line job at Economy. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission awarded her permanent total disability benefits for life.

Economy appealed and the case made its way into the state court system. The Illinois Court of Appeals agreed with the award of benefits, pointing out that the state workers’ compensation law defines an “employee” as “[e]very person in the service of another under any contract of hire […] including aliens.” The court concluded that all aliens in the service of another pursuant to a contract for hire, regardless of their immigration status, are considered “employees” who are entitled to receive workers’ compensation benefits under state law. In reaching that conclusion, the court turned away Economy’s argument that federal immigration law trumped the application of state workers’ comp law.

The case is Economy Packing Company v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, Appellate Court of Illinois, First Judicial District, No. 1-07-2947WC (12/9/08).

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