By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor
If there was one thing that was clearly articulated by the audience reaction at Wednesday's morning keynote session at the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference and Exposition in Las Vegas, it's that we have a problem with immigration.
Not like that's news to anyone, but the problem, as it relates specifically to the realm of workers' compensation management, is heated and emotional despite the level-headedness displayed by two workers' compensation experts who faced off in a debate on the topic early Wednesday inside the Las Vegas Hilton.
The first noticeable audience feedback came when attorney Rusty Watts, a partner with law firm Swift Currie in Atlanta, asserted that laws on the books deal with workers who take a job illegally and then try to file a claim for workers' compensation benefits.
There was plenty of applause in reaction to those sentiments from many among the hundreds of workers' compensation managers, human resource executives and related professionals in the packed ballroom.
Evidently, the frustration being felt by those who ply their trade in workers' comp is real and it is heated.
Mark Noonan, the workers' compensation practice leader for Marsh in the broker's Boston office, got the fireworks started when he asked the debate participants whether illegal workers should be covered by workers' compensation if injured.
We're not taking sides here, at least not today, but Watt's comments came after a brief monologue from Leonard Nason, an attorney whose eponymous firm is based in Bedford, Mass. Nason took what sounded like a very humanistic and logical approach to illegal workers and comp:
Yes, absolutely, illegal workers should expect to be able to collect workers' compensation benefits, according to Nason. After all, why do these workers come to this country in the first place. They are poor and they need a job.
The issue of false documentation is just an example of how businesses in this country exploit those that cross our borders looking for a better life. Nason used an example in which an employer claimed to be hiring a person as a business development analyst for $50,000 per year, when in fact the worker was cleaning toilets for minimum wage.
Nason said sometimes the only way authorities can figure out what's going on is when an undocumented worker "has the guts" to file a workers' comp claim, and then the truth about the employer comes out.
A state-by-state approach to the issue of whether undocumented workers should get workers' comp benefits isn't going to help either, according to Nason.
"It's not just a workers' compensation problem, it's a national problem requiring a national solution," said Nason.
For his part, Watts, who lectures on this topic at Georgia State University, says that there are between 8 million and 31 million illegal workers in this country. Even at the bottom end of that very wide range, that's a huge chunk of humanity to be taking into consideration.
"It is all about people, but it is also a legal issue," Watts said.
Illegal immigrants may not speak a word of English, but federal law, were they able to read it, would tell them that workers' compensation benefits can be denied if the actor engaged in fraudulent activity in connection with filing the claim. That includes, according to Watts, the act of taking a job when the law states that you are taking it illegally. It was here, again, when many in the audience decided to put their hands together.
Nason reminded them, though, that these vast numbers of people have come to these shores for generations.
"We have a land of opportunity where people come to work, they don't come for workers' comp," said Nason.
That may be true, but their sheer numbers are staggering, and determining who should foot the bill when they get injured sounds indeed like a national issue that needs mending. That's what the audience reaction at Wednesday's keynote presentation seemed to tell us.
(Read our write-up and commentary
on other Wednesday sessions at the NWCDC.)
November 19, 2008
Copyright 2008© LRP Publications