A Republican state senator in Ohio wants to prohibit the nation's largest state-run injured worker insurance program from providing benefits to illegal immigrants, a change he said should lower business premiums.
State Sen. Bill Seitz of Cincinnati said he was shocked to learn during a recent committee meeting that the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation doesn't require injured workers to document their status before providing benefits. Ohio law enables "aliens and minors" to receive workers compensation benefits.
The law does not draw a distinction between "legal" and "illegal" aliens.
"We are going to provide a mechanism for those claims to be investigated and if the people turn out to be unauthorized there will be no coverage," said Seitz, who is drafting a bill he plans to soon introduce in the Republican-controlled Senate. "We will try to wring costs out of the system."
The bureau has not formed a position.
"We are committed to carrying out the law as defined in statute, and that is to serve injured workers," said spokeswoman Melissa Vince.
Seitz acknowledged there is no way to determine how much in claims is paid out to illegal immigrants because the bureau cannot determine immigration status. He said it seems safe to presume that illegal workers get injured at the same rates as other workers, and that the added costs of enforcement should be less than the amount of premiums that would be denied to illegal workers.
David Leopold, a Cleveland attorney and president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said Seitz was engaged in a publicity stunt.
"It seems to me to be a waste of time to even be talking about this," Leopold said. "Beyond being cruel, it's senseless because it's not going to address the problem. If he has no statistics to back this up, he hasn't shown a problem exists."
While workers' compensation law is generally unique from state to state, laws in most states allow injured illegal immigrants to receive benefits, said Dennis Smith, president of the American Association of State Compensation Insurance Funds.
"If there is an injured worker, we generally don't deny those claims," Smith said.
Courts in states, including Ohio, whose laws don't distinguish between legal and illegal aliens have generally ruled that workers' compensation benefits can't be denied to illegal immigrants, noted a legal article published in the association newsletter in 2006. A handful of states, including California and New York, specifically include illegal immigrants.
In October 2008, a state appeals court in New York upheld workers' compensation benefits for an illegal alien injured while working as a parking lot attendant despite falsely using another man's identification.
Wyoming specifically excludes illegal immigrants from receiving workers' compensation.
Seitz has not yet spoken with business groups.
Ty Pine, legislative director for the National Federation of Independent Business-Ohio, said he would have to review the legislation to make sure there are no unintended consequences for businesses such as increased compliance requirements or liabilities.
"We certainly believe that employers should be doing their due diligence in hiring people. There could be a lot of devils in the details, though," Pine said.
Seitz's bill would place the burden of proof on the injured worker to demonstrate he or she is a legal worker by showing documentation such as a birth certificate or a visa. It would establish immunity from civil lawsuits for businesses in cases in which their workers' claims are denied by the bureau because the worker is illegal, except in cases in which the business knew the worker was illegal or if it intentionally hurt the worker.