As the Industrial Commission moves further to the right, a new bill that would prevent undocumented immigrants from worker’s compensation appears to be helped along by the commission itself.
HB 369 says any worker not lawfully employable in the United States will not get compensation for occupational injury or disease if the employer believed they were allowed to be in the country legally when hiring.
Work in North Carolina primarily taken by undocumented workers — construction, landscaping, meat processing — consists of some of the most dangerous jobs one can have. Even cleaning services, another job undocumented workers take in larger numbers, consists of many repetitive movements that can result in damage to joints and tendons requiring vocational leave.
Gabe Talton, a personal injury lawyer and chair of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice Hispanic Latino Affairs Division, said for undocumented workers in the state, losing worker’s compensation could put an end to their ability to work at all.
“This is the only way that many of these people have access to any medical attention. If they have a broken bone or a torn ACL, without worker’s comp, those are permanently disabling injuries,” Talton said. “They can’t work construction with a torn rotator cuff.”
Unpacking it, there is nothing in this bill that dissuades businesses from hiring undocumented workers. Employers can already more easily exploit employees who know their immigration status puts themselves and their families at risk for deportation. And if employers know someone’s work can be exploited without being concerned about worker’s compensation claims, there is no incentive to stop hiring from this labor pool. This also provides no incentive for employers to make workplaces safer for undocumented workers.
“Having workers who are not eligible for worker’s compensation makes it cheaper to employ them,” Talton said. “So this is another thing that will make it less expensive to hire undocumented immigrants versus Americans.”
The bill’s language also specifies that this applies to workers who misrepresented their citizenship at the time of hiring, so if someone who enters the United States illegally and gets a job but later obtains the necessary documents, that worker would still not receive worker’s comp after an injury.
If the bill passes and undocumented workers lose their compensation for workplace injuries, this could mean more strain on hospital emergency rooms, which already cost North Carolina hospitals around $1 million each year — costs that are passed onto taxpayers.
When the bill was read in the Senate judiciary committee June 26, Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-Wilmington, let representatives from the Industrial Commission explain this section of the bill.
“They sent that bill to me and asked that it be considered,” Goolsby said in chambers.
Goolsby’s staff said Goolsby drafted the proposal and was assisted by Industrial Commission staffers. The Industrial Commission’s general counsel, Sumit Gupta, later said that this was not an issue the commission planned to pursue and reiterated that the commission does not have the power to introduce legislation.
The Indy Week has requested emails between Goolsby and the Industrial Commission and will update this story when that information becomes available.
The Industrial Commission’s job is to preside over worker’s compensation cases, so aiding in the creation of legislation that would reduce compensation for injuries is another signal in the changing direction of the commission.
Current state budget proposals would impose term limits on deputy commissioners in the Industrial Commission, opening them up to political influence. Gov. Pat McCrory also recently appointed Charlton Allen to one of the six commissioner positions, despite Allen’s extreme anti-labor positions. Andrew Heath, the current chair of the Industrial Commission and a McCrory appointee, donated to McCrory’s campaign, according to data collected by the Sunlight Foundation.
HB 369 passed the House in April but has since gone through significant changes in the Senate committees, including the addition of the provision taking worker’s compensation away from undocumented workers.