By NATE JENKINS
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Nebraska has joined a growing number of states in which courts have decided illegal immigrants hurt on the job are eligible for workers' compensation benefits.
The Nebraska Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a lower-court ruling that slaughterhouse worker Odilon Visoso should continue to receive weekly wages of about $340, payment for future medical expenses related to his spine injury and other benefits.
In 2006, a 100-pound slab of beef fell from a hook and landed on Visoso at a plant in Schuyler where nearly 5,000 cattle are processed each day. Visoso had surgery in October 2007 and was fired shortly after by Cargill because, according to court documents, the company had discovered he was an illegal immigrant.
"If it was the intent of the Nebraska Legislature to exclude illegal aliens from the definition of covered employees or workers, it could have easily included a modifier in the statute, but the Legislature did not, and has not, done so," Judge Richard Sievers wrote in the opinion for the appellate court.
State law says all employees, including "aliens," are eligible for worker's compensation. The law does not define "aliens," but the court said the common definition includes those who aren't legal residents and can't legally work in the U.S.
Workers' compensation provides weekly disability payments when employees can't work because of on-the-job accidents.
Cargill disputed Visoso's claim that he suffered any disabilities during his work at the slaughterhouse, and spokesman Mark Klein said Wednesday "there was no medical reason" he couldn't work.
"There was no medical reason he could not return to a job and therefore he was not entitled to have his wages replaced so long as his undocumented status was the only reason he had a wage loss," Klein wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
The appellate court, however, disagreed, ruling that Visoso's injury prevented him from working.
Arguments that illegal immigrants shouldn't get some workers' compensation benefits haven't passed muster with most of the courts that have considered similar cases in the past few years, said a national workers' compensation consultant.
"It's absolutely common. In most states where it's come up, courts have allowed illegal immigrants" to receive workers' compensation benefits, said Thomas Lynch, chief executive of Massachusetts-based Lynch, Ryan & Associates.
The decisions haven't put a big financial burden on companies because illegal immigrants tend not to seek benefits for fear their illegal status will be discovered and they will be deported, he added.
It is was unclear Wednesday whether Visoso was still living in Nebraska. There were no phone numbers listed for him, and his attorney was not immediately available for comment.
On the Net:
Nebraska Court of Appeals: http://www.supremecourt.ne.gov/opinions/2009/december/dec8/a09-339.pdf
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.