Legal protections for undocumented workers are currently in a state of flux in California and across the United States. Because California is home to many of the nation’s undocumented workers, developments in California’s employment laws impact millions of lives and influence the developing landscape of immigration and employment laws across the country.
On April 2, 2014, the California Supreme Court heard oral argument in Vicente Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co., a case that may determine what, if any, workplace protections in California apply to undocumented employees.
Vicente Salas filed a discrimination claim against his former employer, Sierra Chemical Co. (“Sierra”), for violating the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and terminating his employment in violation of public policy. Mr. Salas alleged that Sierra failed to reasonably accommodate his disability and failed to engage in an interactive process regarding the necessary accommodations. He also alleged that Sierra denied him employment to punish him for filing a claim for workers’ compensation benefits.
The trial court dismissed Mr. Salas’ claims on grounds that after he filed his lawsuit, the employer discovered that he was not authorized to work in the U.S and the Court of Appeal affirmed. Mr. Salas then successfully petitioned the California Supreme Court for review.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 precluded undocumented workers from receiving a remedy of back pay even if they were victims of unfair labor practices.
In response to Hoffman, California enacted SB 1818 to ensure that undocumented workers remained entitled to the same rights and remedies afforded to all workers under state law. SB 1818 was codified in California Labor Code Section 1171.5, which provides that all protections, rights, and remedies available under state law (except reinstatement remedies prohibited by federal law) are available to all employees regardless of immigration status.
Supreme Court Argument
Mr. Salas argued to the Supreme Court that the lower court’s decision should be reversed and that his case should be allowed to proceed because SB 1818 provides full protection under state law regardless of immigration status. Mr. Salas argued that allowing the lower court’s decision to stand would give employers a free pass to exploit undocumented workers. Mr. Salas also drew the Court’s attention to longstanding legal precedent establishing that, due to their great public importance, civil rights cases must be allowed to proceed to trial regardless of an employer’s accusations of employee wrongdoing.
The California Supreme Court will issue its decision in the Salas case by July 2014.
Because California is home to many of the nation’s undocumented workers, developments in California’s employment laws impact millions of lives and influence the developing landscape of immigration and employment laws across the country.