Iowa: Undocumented Workers Are Protected by the Workers’ Compensation Act

The Supreme Court of Iowa recently held in relevant part that undocumented workers are not excluded from the Workers’ Compensation Act’s definition of “employee” and that the contract of employment between an undocumented worker and the employer is not void. Accordingly, it was not error for a district court to affirm a decision by an Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner that awarded the injured worker healing period benefits under the Act [Staff Mngmt. v. Jimenez, 2013 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 120 (Nov. 15, 2013)]. Indicating that if the legislature had 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 in Iowa Code § 85.61(11)(c) and that it was not the Court’s role to add to the list of excluded workers or employees, the high court held the definition of “employee” was sufficiently broad so as to include the injured, but undocumented worker.

Following the lead of other states [see Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, § 66.03]–the Iowa court favorably cited case law from Connecticut–the court also indicated that the purpose of the federal immigration statute (IRCA) was to inhibit employment of undocumented workers, not to diminish labor protections for undocumented workers. The court added that construing an employment agreement between an undocumented worker and an employer as not covered by the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act would undermine the IRCA by encouraging employers to hire undocumented workers because the employers would not be liable under the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act for any injuries those workers sustained. It would also undermine the purpose of the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Act to make statutory compensation available to employees when the employees sustain injuries as a result of the hazards of the business.

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