Benefits for illegal workers stir heated debate

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Capital News Service

LANSING – Some illegal immigrants injured on the job would be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits under controversial legislation pending in the House.

The proposal by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D- Detroit, would eliminate some immigration violations as barriers to collecting benefits.

“Forty-eight other states understand the importance of the reform primarily because the legislation doesn’t cost the state any money,” Tlaib said, “Not extending workers’ compensation to undocumented workers gives the employers an incentive to circumvent the program originally established to protect the workers.”

But business groups oppose it because they say it would drive up workers’ compensation costs for employers.

Current state law denies benefits to employees who can’t work because they committed a crime. Tlaib’s bill would exclude “working without employment authorization” or using false documents as disqualifying crimes.

Jack Nolish, director of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Agency, said the bill addresses a Michigan Supreme Court case several years ago that disqualifies undocumented workers from certain benefits.

However, Rob Anderson, legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau which opposes the bill, said, “This would create a situation where these individuals who have committed a crime and other crimes would be able to collect lifetime wage loss benefits even if they are not in the country any more. This would put them in a position above other individuals who have also committed a crime.”

The co-sponsors include Reps. Coleman Young, D-Detroit; Vincent Gregory, D-Southfield; Lesia Liss, D-Warren; Gabe Leland, D-Detroit and Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods.

On the other side of the issue, Rep. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, called the bill outrageous. “There is no way that we should allow illegal aliens to take the job, and get benefits. Her bill is a horrible slap in the face of legal immigrants who have worked so hard,” said Jones.

Citing Michigan’s high unemployment rate, he said, “We don’t need illegal immigrants coming here stealing jobs from college students who need the jobs.”

Jones said the legislation would encourage illegal immigrants to come to Michigan.

And Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville, has introduced his own bill to reinforce the disqualification of workers who illegally use false documents to get jobs if their employers don’t know about it.

“I’m trying to discourage illegal activity and she’s encouraging that,” he said of Tlaib, “Her bill would reward lawbreakers.”

Agema said that illegal immigration costs about $600 million a year for health care, welfare, jails and human services in Michigan.

Mike Batterbee, director of government relations for the Small Business Association of Michigan, said he worries that the bill would have a negative impact on small business.

“We’ve been opposed to it because it would drive up workers’ compensation costs. There are some companies that do hire undocumented workers on purpose. They are flouting the law,” he said.

He said the bill wouldn’t affect businesses that follow federal law by requiring documentation that applicants are eligible to work in the United States.

The bill is pending in the House Labor Committee.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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