California Supreme Court Upholds Protections for Undocumented Workers

In a partial victory for California workers, the State’s highest court ruled, in Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co. 59 Cal.4th 407 (2014) that employers cannot get away with violating California employment laws just because they find evidence, after being sued, that their mistreated employees did not have proper authorization to work in the United States.

Mr. Salas had worked for Sierra Chemical Company in California for a number of years when he injured his back on the job. The company had regular seasonal layoffs during the winter months and typically hired back its workers when business picked up in warmer months. However, after Mr. Salas injured his back on the job and filed a worker’s compensation claim, Sierra refused to hire him back until he could prove that he no longer needed an accommodation for his back injury. Mr. Salas filed a lawsuit against Sierra for unlawful employment discrimination and retaliation under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, claiming that Sierra refused to accommodate his physical disability and refused to rehire him in retaliation for having filed a worker’s compensation claim.

Almost two years after refusing to rehire Mr. Salas, and just before the case was set to go to trial, Sierra found evidence that Mr. Salas had used someone else’s social security number when he applied for the job many years ago. The company argued that this information provided a complete justification for throwing his lawsuit out of court. Fortunately, the California Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that an employer cannot completely escape from liability just because it later finds evidence, after a lawsuit is filed, that the employee it discriminated against was undocumented. The Court explained that employers would otherwise have a powerful incentive to hire undocumented workers, or “look the other way” when hiring employees they suspect to be undocumented, because they would be able to violate any number of California’s employment laws (including minimum wage laws, child labor laws, and anti-discrimination laws) and get away with it if any of their undocumented employees ever sued to enforce the law.

In reaching its decision, the California Supreme Court examined both federal immigration law and California employment law. The Court determined that since employers are not allowed to intentionally hire undocumented workers under federal law, the State cannot require an employer to pay lost wages to the employee for the time period after it learns of the employee’s undocumented status. (The state also cannot force an employer to reinstate an undocumented employee.) However, in order to help police and enforce California’s employment laws, the State can require employers to pay for other financial damages incurred as a result of its unlawful acts, including back pay for the time period before it finds evidence of an employee’s undocumented status. In other words, if employers violate the California’s employment laws, they can still be forced to pay their employees large financial awards even if they later find evidence that their employees did not have proper work authorization.

August 6, 2014 Heather Conger