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Suit targets rules on compensation for undocumented workers injured on job

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

An advocacy group is turning to the Michigan Court of Claims to change state policies and grant pay for undocumented immigrants injured at work.

The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, represented by Public Justice and the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging a 2003 Court of Appeals decision in Sanchez v. Eagle Alloy.

That case involved two undocumented workers hurt on the job who sought wage-loss benefits. The Appeals Court decision touched on the state Workers' Compensation Act, which exempts employees who have committed a crime from receiving wage-loss benefits. The court affirmed a previous ruling that the immigrants would fit that description if seeking future employment, according to the immigrant rights center lawsuit.

Since then, state officials “have categorically disqualified undocumented workers from receiving wage-loss benefits solely because they are undocumented,” according to the filing.

The lawsuit contends the policies contravene a state Supreme Court ruling, also from 2003, involving an injured Michigan Department of Corrections staffer who stopped receiving the benefits after he was jailed for a drug offense. 

That decision “requires the employer to provide wage-loss benefits to the extent the reduction in earning is caused by the workplace injury,” the filing stated. “That award can only be decreased due to the ‘commission of a crime’ to the extent the employer shows the reduction in pay is the result of the employee's conduct through the commission of a crime, and not the injury.”

The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center argues the issue affects its Farmworker and Immigrant Rights project launched in 2017 to provide legal services countering issues such as raids or discrimination.

“… FWIR staff have had to field calls from injured immigrant workers, including farmworkers, day laborers, and landscapers who were seeking legal assistance with their workers' compensation claims because they were denied workers' compensation on the basis that they had ‘committed a crime,’ ” the suit read.

“... As a result, MIRC's FWIR project has been forced to divert a substantial amount of its highly limited resources to evaluating workers' compensation claims, frustrating its ability to pursue the legal activities it was designed to pursue.”

Representatives for Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, the lone official named in the suit, did not immediately respond Friday night.

The lawsuit seeks a judgment that forces the state to allow undocumented workers to “make out the same prima facie case for wage-loss benefits as other workers.”

“Michigan cannot function without the contributions of essential immigrant workers,” MIRC Staff Attorney Anna Hill said in a statement. 

“Immigrants perform some of the hardest, most dangerous, and most essential work that keeps Michiganders housed and fed. They should receive the same protections under the law as other workers and be able to work in conditions that are dignified, fair, and healthy. However, for the past 17 years undocumented workers in Michigan who suffer serious workplace injuries have been unjustly denied workers compensation wages while they are recovering.”

Separately, officials with more than 40 social service, religious and labor groups, including the UAW and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, signed a letter sent to Whitmer and others in her administration last week seeking “swift action to ensure that undocumented workers receive the same protections under the law as all workers.”