North Carolina bill could leave some without workers’ comp benefits

A proposed North Carolina law would limit access to workers’ compensation benefits for undocumented workers, but the bill has been widely panned.

Every year, the financial toll of workplace injuries in America is $250 billion, according to a recent study from UC Davis. Even in workplaces that are not traditionally thought of as high risk, accidents can happen and repetitive motions can take their toll. Relatively minor work-related injuries like strains and sprains still cost an average of $15,000 per claim to treat, according to Emerge Diagnostics, a firm that advises businesses on workplace injury issues.

When an employee is injured on the job, he or she is entitled to workers' compensation benefits. Workers' comp covers the cost of medical care for work-related injuries, and also provides workers with partial wage replacement. Benefits are provided regardless of fault, meaning that if an employee can show that an injury is work-related, there is no need to prove negligence by the employer. In fact, even employees who are responsible for causing injury to themselves at work may be entitled to workers' comp benefits. As a trade off, employers that provide workers' comp are shielded from personal injury lawsuits.

The workers' compensation system is an important lifeline to all employees. But, a new bill in North Carolina could severely limit the workers' comp resources available to some employees.

Measure would prevent undocumented workers from receiving workers' comp

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that there are 325,000 undocumented immigrants currently living in North Carolina, representing 5.4 percent of the state's labor force. Under current law, an undocumented worker who suffers an on-the-job injury is entitled to workers' compensation just like anyone else.

House Bill 369, if it becomes law, would change that. The bill says that any worker who is not lawfully employable in the U.S. would be ineligible for workers' comp if the employer could show lack of knowledge of the worker's status at the time of hiring.

Critics have lambasted House Bill 369, saying that it would leave undocumented workers - many of whom are employed in fields with the highest potential for injuries, like construction, landscaping, meat packing and cleaning services - without the ability to pay for treatment after suffering a workplace injury. Treatment costs would in turn be passed on to North Carolina taxpayers, who already foot an annual bill of around $1 million for emergency medical care provided to patients who lack the resources to pay for treatment.

The bill could also incentivize employers to look the other way on legal employment status when making hiring decisions. Should an injury occur, the employer could later look back and conveniently claim ignorance on a worker's legal status to avoid paying workers' comp benefits or incurring higher workers' comp insurance premiums. This would make it easier for employers to profit by further exploiting undocumented workers. It could also potentially open employers up to legal liability for negligence, as workers who are covered by workers' compensation insurance are barred from suing their employers for negligence.

Get in touch with a lawyer if you have suffered a workplace injury

House Bill 369, at least in its current form, is facing tough opposition. Denying workers who have sacrificed their bodies in the labor market fair access to benefits is neither right nor prudent, and the bill would only serve to make it easier for some employers to exploit an already vulnerable population.

If you have been injured at work, whatever your legal status, you have a right to the benefits you have earned. Talk to a North Carolina workers' comp attorney today to learn more about your rights and to begin pursuing a claim.

Keywords: North Carolina, workers' comp, undocumented workers