Last week, a deadly incident at a Gainesville-area poultry plan brought awareness to growing concerns about undocumented workers’ access to health care and workers’ compensation benefits. As the Courthouse News reports, the incident exposed over 130 workers to deadly liquid nitrogen, which the plant uses to flash freeze chicken.
Georgia processes more poultry than any other state, creating a $41 billion industry employing nearly 50,000 workers. The exact number of these employees is difficult to measure as so many poultry workers are undocumented immigrants.
Employers have fought against undocumented workers’ rights
Last week’s exposure killed five and seriously injured 12 workers. The question remains as to how this may affect Georgia workers’ compensation coverage of undocumented workers.
The Georgia Bar explains that while current Georgia law does not block undocumented workers from receiving compensation, many workers avoid seeking benefits out of fear of discovery and deportation. Also, many employers have argued that federal law preempts states from making laws to protect immigrants’ access to workers’ compensation. Others have argued that traditional contract law voids undocumented workers’ rights to benefits, claiming that since no valid contract entitles them to these benefits, that employers do not owe them to workers.
Georgia courts have affirmed undocumented workers’ rights
However, the Georgia Court of Appeals has dismissed these arguments and repeatedly asserted that undocumented workers do qualify for workers’ compensation under the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act. Both the definitions of workers therein and a tradition of successful claims by both undocumented workers and other types of illegal workers, such as child laborers, have sustained these rights.
Incidents such as the one in Gainesville last week may further influence the legislature and courts to revise existing law, but in the meantime, undocumented workers may still be able to pursue the compensation they need.