In 2019, at a vegetable packing warehouse in western Michigan, a forklift crushed Maria’s right foot.
A single mother who is undocumented, she requested workers compensation for the wages she would have earned if not for her injury, but she was denied, she said. Needing the money, she returned to the job several months after surgery repaired her foot.
“I’m still battling enormously,” she said in Spanish of working on her foot, which required another surgery recently due to complications from the first one. "It’s an unbearable pain.”
Michigan’s agriculture industry is in the midst of harvest season, and many of the people picking and processing the fruits and vegetables are undocumented. While their labor makes grocery shopping very convenient, the jobs carry a high risk of injury. Workers compensation is intended as a bridge for people who need time to recover.
While approaches vary, some major agricultural states, such as California and North Carolina, cover some benefits to injured workers who are undocumented. But, in Michigan, undocumented workers are denied benefits for lost wages based “solely” on their immigration status, according to a lawsuit filed against the state by two workers rights organizations.
Michigan’s system does provide undocumented workers with benefits for certain medical treatment, such as rehab. But wage-loss benefits can last longer, allowing workers to recover fully from injuries. Without wage-loss protection, workers may continue to work despite injuries.
“That really allows the agriculture sector to take advantage of their workers,” said David Muraskin, a lawyer for Public Justice.
Public Justice and the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice filed the lawsuit against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on behalf of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, a legal aid service that said it has handled many cases like Maria’s. The case was filed in November and is ongoing.
Bobby Leddy, a spokesman for Whitmer’s office, said he would not comment on ongoing litigation. When asked if the governor believes undocumented workers should receive wage-loss compensation, Leddy said any changes to current law must go through the state legislature.
“Governor Whitmer is dedicated to helping working Michiganders thrive and ensure all workers are fairly compensated under the law,” he said.
The Michigan Workers Disability Compensation Agency, which oversees workers compensation in the state, did not return a request for comment this week.
Due to her immigration status and fear of retaliation from her employer, Maria requested only her first name be used. Investigate Midwest is withholding the name of her employer to also protect her identity. Neither the company nor Maria are part of the lawsuit against the state.
Injuries in agriculture are common, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rates of injuries that resulted in days away from work were higher for workers in crop and animal production — 1.4 and 2.1 cases per 100 full-time workers, respectively — than for all private sector workers, which was 0.9.
About 100,000 Michigan residents are undocumented, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy. And, each year, they lose about $3 million due to workplace injuries and not being able to access wage-loss benefits, according to research from the University of Michigan.
When Maria injured her foot, she believed she was eligible for wage-loss compensation.
“When I said, ‘Pay me for the days I can’t work,’ they told me no, that I didn’t have that right,” she said. “All of my expenses and my family — to them, they don’t care at all if I end up in the streets. At all.”
An ongoing lawsuit
The current situation has roots in a 2003 Michigan Court of Appeals decision, Sanchez v. Eagle Alloy.
In that case, the court was tasked with deciding whether an employer had to pay benefits to two workers who were undocumented. The workers used fake documents to get their jobs. This constituted a crime, and, under state law, employers don’t have to pay benefits if a worker is convicted of a crime.
Once the fake documents came to light, the employer could not legally employ the workers and had no obligation to pay for their benefits, according to court records.
The Court of Appeals declared the undocumented workers “became unable to obtain or perform work ‘because of’ the commission of crime.” This meant they were not entitled to on-going, weekly wage-loss benefits, the court ruled.
Many states, including Michigan, do not allow people convicted of crimes from receiving workers compensation. But, being in the U.S. without proper paperwork is not, in and of itself, illegal, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. It’s a misdemeanor to enter the U.S. without a valid passport, but many people who are undocumented entered the country legally and then overstayed their visas.
Because of this, Public Justice and the Sugar Law Center argue in their lawsuit, how the state handles undocumented workers’ wage-loss claims violates federal law.
Muraskin said, based on the organizations’ research, the language in the Sanchez case appears to be somewhat of an outlier.
“Many states have laws that prevent you from getting workers comp if you’re convicted of a crime,” he said. “But Michigan’s language of commission of a crime is, as far as we can tell, unique. We haven’t seen another state like it.”
Years after Sanchez was decided, the result has been workers are denied benefits because the state considers them to be committing a crime by being undocumented, the workers rights organizations contend in their lawsuit.
The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center included in the lawsuit an example of how this can play out: It said it’s seen insurance companies deny wage-loss benefits because the company cannot locate a person’s social security number.
The case remains before the Michigan Court of Claims, which hears cases filed against the state.
Earlier this year, the state asked the court to dismiss the case. But, in late April, the court allowed the case to proceed because, in part, the immigrant rights center had demonstrated “real and tangible” injuries.
The center claims it has been forced to devote much of its limited resources to dealing with cases related to denied wage-loss benefits. The center shouldn’t have to, though, because workers are entitled to these benefits, it’s argued.
On Thursday, the lawsuit survived another attempt to dismiss it and is proceeding.
‘Changed my life completely’
Maria started working in Michigan in 2005, she said. She spent most of the past decade in the fields, until her injury.
Because the forklift broke her right foot, she can no longer drive. With her kids now adults and all but one out of the house, she has to pay someone to drive her to work.
She also can’t work as much as she used to, she said. Before the injury, she clocked more than 60 hours a week. Now she’s working less than 50. She has to avoid the fields because they’re uneven and could bend her foot painfully.
“Now I walk with a lot of caution,” she said. “I go very slowly because of my foot. I limp on that foot. It’s something that’s changed my life completely.”
She eventually reached out to the immigrant rights center for help, she said. The process of trying to get her benefits has been eye-opening.
“What have I learned?” she asked. “A disillusionment with not having the same rights.”
Top image: A sugar beat harvester at the Saginaw Valley Research & Extension Center in Frankenmuth, Michigan, in September 2019. USDA photo by Preston Keres