Vicente Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co.: Workers’ Compensation and Undocumented Workers

Our South Carolina Workers’ Compensation lawyers know that when an undocumented worker is injured on the job, things can become very complicated for the injured worker. However, in South Carolina, the Supreme Court has ruled that undocumented workers are eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. The court’s reasoning was that if employers could hire undocumented workers and not have to worry about their well-being or safety, this would encourage the hiring of more undocumented workers.

passport.jpgIn Vicente Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co., a Supreme Court of California case, the employer manufactured chemicals used to treat water. This included water in swimming pools. In the warmer months, there is an increased demand for Seirra’s products, so the company hires additional staff. During the fall and winter, demand for pool chemicals is much lower so the company lays off many of its workers. These laid-off workers are normally called back to work when demand increases. This is a typical seasonal employment arrangement.

The plaintiff, Vicente Salas, began working for the company in April 2003. On his job application, he provided a Social Security number and a resident alien card. He also completed an I-9 immigration form with the same information. This form was signed under the penalty of perjury. Salas then started working on the production line. In the fall of that year, he was laid off with the rest of the seasonal production line workers. The following spring, Salas applied again and was employed for the summer on the pool chemical production line.

At some point, Salas received a letter from the Social Security Administration informing him that the Social Security number provided to the company did not match agency records. Several other employees received these letters, but his supervisor told him that as long as the company president was satisfied with their work, they would be fine.

While Salas was still working on the production line, he injured his back stacking crates and was sent to the hospital. He was told not to lift anything that weighed more than 15 pounds. He was also not stand or sit for extended periods of time. His employer modified his responsibilities until doctors cleared him to return to normal activities. He was again laid off in the fall. He filed for Workers’ Compensation benefits as a result of his on-the-job injury.

The next spring, his production manager contacted him and told him that he could only come back to work if he provided a clearance letter from his doctor. He stated that his back was still hurting. He did not return to work, as the company stated that it would be against their policy to allow him to return to work. Salas filed a lawsuit on grounds that the company violated several state and federal regulations and was retaliating against him for filing a workers’ compensation claim. The company filed for summary judgment, requesting that the case be dismissed because Salas had fraudulently misrepresented his immigration status and should therefore be barred from suing his employer under the doctrine of “Unclean Hands.”

With respect to the issue of immigration fraud, the Supreme Court decided it could not be a completely equitable defense to the plaintiff’s lawsuits. The state legislature and public policy favor the rights of employees to fight discriminatory and retaliatory practices, and a trier of fact should decide on the merits of the plaintiff’s claim. The court ruled that a motion for summary judgment was not appropriate and reversed the lower court’s ruling.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Vicente Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co., June 26, 2014, California Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Employer Pressure May Unduly Impact Rights After Injury, January 26, 2014, Spartanburg Workers’ Compensation Lawyers Blog

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