Illegal alien gets workers'-comp benefits

Ghassan Rajeh, a citizen of Lebanon, became a permanent legal resident of the United States in 1981. In 1988, he was convicted in federal court of a conspiracy to distribute heroin, and served five years of an eight-year term. Due to his conviction, he wa

Ghassan Rajeh, a citizen of Lebanon, became a permanent legal resident of the United States in 1981. In 1988, he was convicted in federal court of a conspiracy to distribute heroin, and served five years of an eight-year term. Due to his conviction, he was found to be "deportable" by an immigration judge, and in 1993, he was ordered to be deported to Lebanon. He appealed the decision, but his appeal was denied. Rajeh was ordered to appear for deportation in 1996 and 1999, but he failed to appear on either occasion. When he was arrested in 1999 for failing to appear, he petitioned the Board of Immigration Appeals for relief from deportation under the Convention Against Torture. The board granted his request and, on Sept. 6, 2001, ordered his deportation deferred.

In March 1997, during the time his deportation order was active, Rajeh obtained a job at Steel City Corp. in Ohio. Rajeh said he was injured at work on June 30, 1997, while moving a skid and filed a claim for workers' compensation on Nov. 20, 1997. When Steel City learned of Rajeh's alien status, it asked the Ohio Industrial Commission to deny him workers' comp benefits. The staff hearing officer concluded that Rajeh was not entitled to participate in the Workers' Compensation Fund because he was not a "qualifed alien" eligible to receive state public benefits under federal law, and he was an "unauthorized alien" who could not enter into a legal employee/employer relationship with Steel City.

Rajeh appealed to the state Industrial Commission, which ruled against him, then to an Ohio trial court, which also ruled against him. He then appealed to the Ohio Court of Appeals. That court ruled that Rajeh was entitled to make a claim for workers'-comp benefits. Examining the Ohio workers'-comp statute, the court noted its definition of an "employee" eligible to participate in the Workers' Compensation Fund specifically included "aliens" and made no distinction between legal and illegal aliens.

Steel City and the Industrial Commission argued that the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, enacted by Congress in 1996, limited workers' comp benefits to qualified aliens. That law states aliens who are not qualified aliens (illegal aliens) are not eligible for any state or local public benefit. A state or local public benefit is defined to include "retirement, welfare, health, disability, public or assisted housing, postsecondary education, food assistance, unemployment benefit, or any other similar benefit for which payments or assistance are provided . . . by an agency of a state or local government or by appropriated funds of a state or local government." The list does not include workers'-comp benefits, but the Industrial Commission and Steel City argued it was a state benefit. The court disagreed, concluding that workers' compensation is not a benefit similar to those listed, because it is a substitute for a negligence lawsuit. Under workers'-comp laws, employers are protected from lawsuits over workplace injuries in exchange for providing benefits at set amounts to all injured employees.

The court noted the other primary purpose of the workers'comp system is to promote a safe and injury-free workplace. "Since employers are ultimately responsible for paying workers'compensation claims through insurance premiums or selfinsuring payments, they are more likely to keep their workplaces safe for all employees," the court reasoned. "To refuse to allow illegal aliens injured on the job to recover from the Workers' Compensation Fund would be to encourage the hiring of illegal aliens and downgrade workplace safety."

Rajeh v. Steel City
Corp., 813 N.E.2d
697 (Ohio App.
2004), Court of
Appeals of Ohio,
June 15, 2004.

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