A difficult issue for courts to determine is what to do with undocumented workers within the context of the workers’ compensation system.
A difficult issue for courts to determine is what to do with undocumented workers within the context of the workers’ compensation system. Generally, an undocumented worker has the right under the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act to file a claim and receive both medical and indemnity benefits. In support of that position, the Courts state the policy that they do not want to encourage employers to hire undocumented workers by exempting them from the workers’ compensation system. For that reason, illegal alien workers are afforded the same rights under the law as American citizens when it comes to on-the-job injuries. In 2006, an interesting case was decided by the Georgia Court of Appeals, which seems at odds with the general universality of workers’ compensation. That case is Martines v. Worley & Sons, 278 Ga.App. 26, 628 S.E. 2d 113 (2006). The facts of the case and the courts’ decision at each level are discussed below.
Facts, Decisions, Appeals, and Holding of Martines
Claimant sustained a compensable work accident in August 2002, while working for Employer as a general laborer. Temporary total disability benefits (TTD) were commenced beginning in January 2003, and in September 2003, Employer made a job offer to Claimant on a WC-240 to return to work as a supply truck driver.
Claimant reported to work as directed on the WC-240, but Employer refused to allow him to work until he could provide proper documentation that he could legally work in the United States. Claimant could not provide proper documentation and Employer did not allow him to work and suspended his TTD benefits that day.
The Decisions and Appeals
After a Hearing, the ALJ ruled that regardless of his legal status, the job offered by Employer was not suitable because Claimant did not have a Georgia drivers’ license and could not drive. The ALJ ordered recommencement of benefits. Employer appealed to the Appellate Division of the State Board of Workers’ Compensation.
Appellate Division affirmed the ALJ’s decision. Employer appealed to the Hall County Superior Court. The Superior Court reversed the Board’s decision and ruled that the Board and ALJ incorrectly applied the standard from City of Adel v. Wise, because the issue of whether a job is suitable must be confined to an employee’s physical capacity to perform. The Superior Court determined that Claimant’s inability to drive was analogous to an incarcerated person who is unable to meaningfully accept any offer of employment due to their legal status.
The Superior Court reversed the findings of the Board and ALJ finding that Claimant’s refusal to work was not justified within the meaning of the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act, and therefore, Employer’s suspension of benefits was proper. Claimant appealed.
The Georgia Court of Appeals accepted the case on discretionary appeal. In February 2006, The Court of Appeals ruled in Martines v. Worley & Sons, 278 Ga.App. 26, 628 S.E. 2d 113 (2006), affirming the decision of the Hall County Superior Court. In essence, the Court ruled that when a Claimant’s refusal or inability to accept a suitable job is based on a legal inability (as opposed to physical inability) to perform the job resulting from his own voluntary conduct is not justified as a matter of law.
The Court found that the evidence showed that Claimant was physically capable of driving a car, but could not obtain a drivers’ license due solely to his legal status as an illegal alien. The Court compared his situation to that of a person whose license was suspended or revoked for a violation of the law. Such reasons for refusing light work are deemed “unrelated” to a driver’s “physical capacity or his ability to perform the job.” See Scott Housing Systems v. Howard, 256 Ga. 675 353 S.E. 2d (1990).
Additionally, the Court rejected Claimant’s argument that “equity” prevents Employer from using Claimant’s immigration status to suspend his workers’ compensation benefits. He argued that Employer cannot suspend benefits solely because they cannot legally offer him light duty work because they ignored his immigration status when they initially hired him. The Court pointed out that Claimant filed his employment application with a false Social Security number and therefore never should have been allowed to work or receive workers’ compensation benefits at all.
The Legal Framework
The legal framework which Employers in the United States operate in situations like the one outlined above is defined primarily by two statues. The Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act and specifically O.C.G.A. § 34-9-240(b) states that in order for an employer to unilaterally suspend a claimant’s income benefits on the grounds that the worker has refused a job suitable to the claimant’s capacity, the employer must first tender a suitable job. Additionally, under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, 8 U.S.C. §1324c(A), et seq., an employer may not knowingly employ a worker who is not authorized to work in the United States. The same Act also forbids an employer to continue to employ an alien knowing that the alien is not authorized to work in the United States because of his legal status.
What does this mean for the defense of workers’ compensation claims?
The impact of the above decision on the defense of workers’ compensation claims is that Claimant’s status as an undocumented worker and Employer’s decision to not allow him to work had the same effect as if Claimant had refused to perform the job for purposes of the Workers’ Compensation Act. The focus of the Court’s opinion was on whether Claimant’s “refusal” to work was justified, and not on the legal implications of Employer’s withdrawal of the job offer. The gist of the Martines decision is that an employer can “offer” work to a claimant whose undocumented status is revealed at the time they report to work and can send the claimant away without penalty. In fact, that employer can then suspend the claimant’s income benefits based on the claimant’s unjustifiable refusal to work under Section 240 of the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act. Therefore,Martines can be used as a tool in the defense of workers’ compensation claims to suspend the undocumented claimant’s income benefits upon an offer of suitable employment following a period of total disability.