Undocumented Workers Can Sue for Unpaid Wages

By James Hatch

Jun. 29, 2007

Cesar Martinez Corral, an undocumented worker illegally employed in Kansas, filed a claim with the Kansas Department of Labor to collect unpaid wages earned from his job with Coma Corp. The agency awarded Corral the full amount he was owed, plus interest, and a civil penalty imposed by the Kansas Wage Payment Act in an amount equal to the unpaid wages.

   A Kansas district court reversed the Labor Department’s award, in part holding that although the state’s Wage Payment Act applies to undocumented workers, he was only entitled to the applicable minimum wage because the employment contract was illegal because of his undocumented status.

   In reversing the district court’s holding, the Kansas Supreme Court rejected the employer’s argument that, because Corral was undocumented, federal immigration law pre-empts state law claims for unpaid wages. The court concluded that federal immigration policy is furthered by enforcement of the state wage law because it eliminates an incentive for hiring illegal workers if employers know they must pay them properly.

   The court also concluded that the worker was entitled to an award of wages in accordance with the oral employment contract and that he was entitled to the civil penalty. The court held that the state’s policy of protecting wages and wage earners would be directly contravened by denying or diluting an action for wages earned but not paid on the grounds that such employment contracts are illegal. The court recognized that the Kansas Wage Payment Act is “plain and unambiguous” and does not carve out any “illegal alien” exception. Coma Corp. v. Kansas Dep’t of Labor, Kan., No. 95,537 (3/23/07).

    Impact: Employers are advised that state wage/hour laws may not be pre-empted by federal immigration law. Employers who hire illegal workers may be liable to those illegal workers under applicable state wage laws in the same way as to legal workers.

Workforce Management, June 25, 2007, p. 18Subscribe Now!

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