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A lawsuit in Michigan wants to protect worker's comp for undocumented immigrants

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Millions of undocumented workers are doing some of the country's most dangerous jobs. While most states give these workers the right to workers' compensation, in Michigan and Wyoming, a person's immigration status can lead them to be denied such benefits. A lawsuit aims to change that in Michigan. Michelle Jokisch Polo from member station WKAR in East Lansing reports.

MICHELLE JOKISCH POLO, BYLINE: At 47 years old, Lupita never thought she'd find herself unable to walk without experiencing intense pain. Four years ago, Lupita was working a shift at her job at a sawmill in Michigan when she twisted her ankle while carrying a large air pressure hose down a platform. Lupita is from Mexico, and because she's undocumented, she has to be identified by her middle name.

LUPITA: (Through interpreter) I told my shift leader that I fell, and I twisted my ankle and was in a lot of pain.

POLO: Lupita is one of over 50,000 undocumented immigrants in Michigan who aren't eligible to access workers' compensation solely because they lack authorization to work legally in the United States. That's according to a lawsuit filed against the state. Attorney John Philo filed a suit on behalf of the nonprofit organization Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. He says the lawsuit contends the organization's resources are being depleted by the volume of injured undocumented workers seeking legal assistance. Every year, the nonprofit takes on more than 1,500 cases like these.

JOHN PHILO: They have to use resources, one, to meet, talk, explain the law, but also to try and help them out if there's a dispute on the medical bills to help them with the medical coverage.

POLO: While a judge from the Court of Claims has ruled in favor of undocumented immigrants, an appeals court has overturned that ruling. The organization is now taking the case to the Michigan Supreme Court. At a hearing last month, Assistant Attorney General Jason Hawkins argued Governor Gretchen Whitmer as the head of the state should not be held responsible, and the nonprofit should focus on changing the law through legislative avenues instead.

JASON HAWKINS: She has no role in deciding workers' compensation cases, that I do not understand how they can maintain a claim against her for allegedly misapplying the Workers Comp Act.

POLO: Wendy Block heads the advocacy arm for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. She says the current law is working.

WENDY BLOCK: Our members are in the business of following the law and want to make sure that workers are covered when the law requires it. But again, this gets back to, you know, if someone is knowingly falsifying documents to gain lawful employment, they were never there legally to begin with.

POLO: Even though federal law protects the rights of undocumented workers, it doesn't guarantee access to lost wages if they're hurt on the job, leaving it up to individual states to decide. Matthew Hall, a demographer at Cornell University, has been studying how immigration status can impact a person's ability to safely work.

MATTHEW HALL: Undocumented migrants tend to cluster not only in unstable jobs with few opportunities for growth, but also in the kinds of jobs that are physically demanding, that put them in harm's way.

POLO: Despite months of physical therapy and a surgery, Lupita is still in pain and can only stand for minutes at a time.

LUPITA: (Through interpreter) This process has worn me down mentally, morally and physically because whenever one knocks on a door as an undocumented person, there's always a closed door.

POLO: Lupita is not working anymore and is relying on her husband and two daughters to make ends meet. She's hoping the Michigan Supreme Court will rule in favor of undocumented immigrants so that others don't have to face the same thing. For NPR News, I'm Michelle Jokisch Polo in East Lansing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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