Blog: Appeals Court – Illegal residents entitled to workers compensation

Jul 1, 2011

The following article was was posted to the PolitiJax blog in the Florida Times-Union on July 1, 2011:

Appeals Court:  Illegal Residents Entitled to Workers Comp


By Matt Dixon

After dropping out of school in his native Mexico, Luis Aragon crossed the U.S. border as an illegal immigrant at age 16 in search of work.

Aragon found jobs in Georgia before heading to Jacksonville, where he worked construction. But in September 2007, Aragon fell 30 feet off a roof on a job site, suffering serious injuries to his foot and arm.

That accident led to a legal fight that culminated this week with the First District Court of Appeal sending a clear message that illegal immigrants are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits in Florida.

“Although there is no shortage of debate that can be had on the issue of illegal labor and its effect on our state, there is no dispute that the Florida Legislature has expressed an unyielding, textual intent that aliens, including those who are illegal and unlawfully employed, be covered and compensated under the Florida Workers’ Compensation Law,” an opinion issued Tuesday by a three-judge panel said.

The judges also noted a lower-court determination that the company that employed Aragon, HDV Construction Systems Inc., knew or should have known that he was an undocumented worker.

They also said the workers’ compensation system is designed to help shield taxpayers from picking up the costs of injured workers.

The opinion said a company that “knowingly employs unlawful labor should not be able to shirk the cost of the injuries it creates — and in turn, shift the cost of the damages that it has knowingly created on the taxpaying public.”

An attorney for HDV Construction Systems and its insurance carrier could not be reached for comment this week. But in a court brief, the companies argued primarily against the extent of benefits awarded to Aragon.

Workers compensation covered Aragon’s medical treatment, but Judge of Compensation Claims Neal P. Pitts — the type of lower-court judge who hears such disputes — also awarded what are known as “permanent total disability” benefits.

HDV Construction and the carrier contended that Aragon was not entitled to such benefits because he could hold jobs that were not as physically demanding as construction. They also said the lower-court judge had improperly factored in Aragon’s illegal status and lack of English skills in determining that he could not get another job.

Pitts awarded the benefits to Aragon through Nov. 2, 2010, the date of his ruling. But the appeals-court went further this week, saying Aragon could receive the benefits on a “continuing basis.”

Documents in the case do not explain Aragon’s current immigration status. But aside from the dispute about benefits, the case provides a glimpse at undocumented workers in Florida’s labor force.

Unable to read or write English, Aragon came to the United States “to help with his family’s dire financial situation,” said a brief filed by his attorney. He traveled to Georgia, where a sister lived, and got jobs doing agricultural field work and fabricating mobile homes.

After coming to Florida, Aragon worked as a framing carpenter on construction sites, documents say. For the job where he was injured, Aragon got hired by a man known only as “Jorge” and was paid in cash.

Aragon, now 27, did not have a Social Security number or a “Green Card” that denotes permanent-resident status.

“Still, he always managed to find work as part of Florida’s ‘underground’ labor force,” says the brief filed by his attorney.

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