If undocumented immigrants are hurt at work, can they get disability payments?

The Idaho Supreme Court’s building in Boise.
The Idaho Supreme Court’s building in Boise.

Undocumented workers in Idaho have the right to claim workers’ comp payments and even temporary disability payments if they’re hurt on the job.

Now, the Idaho Supreme Court says their immigration status isn’t an absolute bar from long-term disability payments, either.

The high court’s ruling, issued Friday, stems from a 2015 complaint filed by a Mexican citizen living in Emmett against the Treasure Valley painting company that employed him.

Elfego Marquez came to the U.S. illegally in 2000, when he was about 30 years old. He had a college degree and had worked as an elementary school teacher in Mexico, but in the U.S. he used fake Social Security cards to get jobs doing manual labor.

Marquez injured his right wrist, arm and shoulder at work in 2010, while preparing a building to be painted. He needed multiple shoulder surgeries and couldn’t return to his job.

Marquez qualified for benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act, since Idaho law says a worker’s legal status cannot disqualify him from workers’ comp coverage. The State Insurance Fund paid $87,527 for Marquez’s medical bills, $30,986 for total temporary disability and $8,488 for permanent partial impairment benefits.

“Marquez then sought permanent disability benefits in excess of his impairment because his post-accident medical restrictions excluded him from a significant portion of the undocumented immigrant labor market in Idaho,” the court’s opinion said. The State Insurance Fund refused to pay him those benefits because of his legal status.

His case then went to the Idaho Industrial Commission, which said in 2017 that Marquez was entitled to permanent disability payments. The State Insurance Fund and Pierce Painting appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court.

The high court ruled that immigration status can still be a factor in disability decisions. But it alone is not a reason to deny someone benefits, Friday’s ruling states.

“Notwithstanding the philosophical considerations and potential legal entanglements which permeate this case, the Idaho Legislature made the policy decision over twenty years ago that those unlawfully employed are entitled to benefits under the [Idaho Workers’ Compensation] Act,” the court’s opinion said.

“If the Idaho Legislature desired to create an absolute bar for permanent disability for those ‘unlawfully employed’ within the Act, it was free to do so when it amended the Act ... in 1996 or thereafter,” the opinion said. “Moreover, if the Legislature wanted to prohibit undocumented immigrants from receiving a benefit under the workers’ compensation statutes, it could have created an express prohibition in that regard — just like it did regarding unemployment benefits.”

Kimberley Schaefer, a Boise immigration attorney, explains how eligible immigrants who already live in Idaho can get a green card by applying to change their immigration status to permanent resident.

Audrey Dutton is an investigative reporter for the Statesman. Contact her at 208-377-6448, or on Twitter at @audreydutton.