The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that a West Liberty woman, an immigrant from Mexico who stayed in the United States after her visa had expired, is entitled to receive workers’ compensation benefits for a work-related injury.
The case involves Pascuala Jiminez, who came to the United States in 1991 and had a visa for 10 years. She remained after it had expired and continued to work. She had lived in West Liberty for 19 years.
Jiminez worked for the Chicago-based temporary employment agency, Staff Management, and was assigned to the Proctor & Gamble plant in Iowa City where she packaged shampoo and prepared boxes and pallets for shipping.
In September 2007 she was lifting a pallet and became injured with what doctors later identified as two abdominal hernias. She returned to work and was limited in her ability to lift until she had surgery in November 2007. She returned to work again in December. In mid-January 2008 she was fired. Managers told her it was because she did not have legal authorization to work in the U.S.
She sought and won benefits from the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner in October 2010. Staff Management appealed to Polk County District Court which upheld the commissioner’s decision. The company further appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.
The company argued that a worker living in the country without legal permission should not receive workers’ compensation benefits because Iowa does not include “undocumented workers” in its definition of an employee under the Iowa Worker’s Compensation Act.
The court said the Iowa Legislature did not exclude such workers from act and therefore concluded that they are entitled to benefits.
“If the Legislature intended the definition of a worker or employee to exclude undocumented workers, it would have done so by adding undocumented workers to the excluded list…” the court said. “t is not our role to add to the list of excluded workers or employees. That is a policy decision the Legislature must make.”
Staff Management also argued an employment contract between such a worker and an employer is contrary to the provisions of the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. That law prohibits companies from hiring undocumented workers or knowingly continuing to employee workers who become unauthorized.
The Iowa justices said it would be contrary to the intent of the IRCA and Iowa’s workers’ compensation law to conclude the employment of a worker living in the country without legal permission was illegal to start with so they couldn’t qualify to receive benefits.
The justices said other courts have found it was not the intention of Congress to pre-empt labor protections under existing law when it passed the IRCA.
The court concluded the district court was correct in upholding the benefits favoring Jimenez. Justices found, however, that the law does not allow workers to be paid healing benefits while they’re working. The case was sent back to the commissioner to exclude payment of healing benefits for the weeks she was working.
Paul McAndrew Jr., a Coralville attorney who represented Jimenez said she’s happy with the ruling. He said he hasn’t yet determined how much money she’ll be paid.
“It’s clear however that the significance of this opinion isn’t money. It’s the principal that undocumented workers do have dignity and rights,” he said.
The attorneys for Staff Management did not immediately respond to a request for comment.