Undocumented Workers Get Help From California Supreme Court Decision

The California Supreme court recently provided greater protection for undocumented workers to file a lawsuit against an unscrupulous employer, yet still risking deportation.1 In its recent decision in Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co. on June 25, 2014, the California Supreme Court was faced with the following set of facts.2 In 2003, Vicente Salas ("Mr. Salas") began working for Sierra Chemical Company ("Sierra") and provided a false Social Security card.3 In 2005, Mr. Salas and his coworkers each received a letter from the federal Social Security Administration stating that their names and Social Security numbers did not match.4 A Sierra manager told them not to worry about the discrepancies with the Social Security numbers.5 In 2006, Mr. Salas injured his back while working and filed a workers' compensation claim.6 In 2007, a Sierra manager told Mr. Salas that he could not return to work if he had not fully recovered from his back injury because it would violate company policies.7

Later that year, Mr. Salas sued Sierra for failure to provide reasonable accommodations for his disability and for retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim in violation of FEHA.8 Mr. Salas sought to recover lost wages, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney fees.9 Sierra argued that Mr. Salas's suit was barred because he had used another person's Social Security number and card to obtain employment, exposing Sierra to penalties under federal immigration law.10 The Supreme Court disagreed.11 The Court ruled that federal immigration "law does not prohibit an employer from paying, or an employee from receiving wages earned during employment wrongfully obtained by false documents, so long as the employer remains unaware of the employee's unauthorized status."12

Further, the Court added that not allowing undocumented workers to "obtain state remedies for unlawful discharge, including prediscovery period lost wages, would effectively immunize employers that, in violation of fundamental state policy, discriminate against their workers on grounds such as disability or race, retaliate against workers who seek compensation for disabling workplace injuries, or fail to pay the wages that state law requires."13

It remains to be seen, following the Salas decision, whether undocumented workers who face discrimination or other labor violations will come forward, given the risks they still face.

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1 Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co., No. S196568 (Cal. filed Jun 26, 2014), http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S196568.PDF.

2 Id.

3 Id. at 3.

4 Id.

5 Id. at 3-4.

6 Id. at 4.

7 Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co., No. S196568 at 4.

8 Id. at 5.

9 Id.

10 Id. at 6-7 ("Federal immigration law requires employers to verify the identity and work eligibility of new employees (8 U.S.C. § 1324a(a)(1)(B)(i)); upon an employer's discovery of a worker's unauthorized immigration status, termination is required (id., § 1324a(a)(2)). An employer who violates these federal law provisions is subject to civil fines (id., § 1324a(e)(4)(A)) and to criminal prosecution (id., § 1324a(f)(1)).").

11 Id. at 2.

12 Id. at 16.

13 Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co., No. S196568 at 18.