COLUMBUS - GOP lawmakers have a message for immigrants working in Ohio illegally: We don't want you here draining the state's workers' compensation benefits. Come back when you can be here legally.
Every dollar spent on immigrants here illegally is a dollar that could be paid to a legal immigrant or citizen who was hurt at work, said Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township.
Seitz and Rep. Larry Householder, R-Glenford, introduced a bill Wednesday to prevent immigrants working here illegally from receiving benefits if they are injured on the job. It's a change Seitz tried to add to a budget that passed the Ohio House, but the GOP-controlled Senate removed the language.
No one knows how much the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation pays these immigrants because officials there don't ask about employees' legal status.
Immigrants working in Ohio illegally are not permitted to receive unemployment compensation, food stamps or Medicaid, except in emergency situations. Workers' compensation shouldn't be any different, Seitz told The Enquirer.
The proposal also allows the injured worker to sue his employer if he can prove that the employer knew the worker was here illegally. Seitz says that adds some protection against unscrupulous employers, who already face hefty federal fines for employing individuals who aren't permitted to work in the United States.
But Rep. Dan Ramos, D-Lorain, says it's nearly impossible to prove an employer knew workers were here illegally. And it could be difficult to sue the employer from a foreign country if the worker is deported, Ramos added.
"Workers compensation is a protection for the workers of Ohio," Ramos said. Like it or not, some Ohio industries rely on workers here illegally. "We shouldn’t have two sets of rules for workplace safety."
How many immigrants without a legal status claim benefits for being injured on the job? It's impossible to say. The Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation doesn't track whether employees applying for benefits are working here legally or not.
An estimated 8 million immigrants were working in the United States illegally in 2014, according to Pew Research Center estimates. These immigrants comprised about 26 percent of farming jobs and 15 percent of construction jobs. Those are jobs where injuries are more likely, Seitz said.
The Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation paid $1.6 billion to injured workers for medical care and lost wages between mid-2015 and mid-2016. During that time, 88,170 new claims were added. Employers pay into the fund that Ohio then uses to compensate injured employees.
Some states allow immigrants working in the United States illegally to claim workers' compensation while others do not. The National Conference of State Legislatures did not have a comprehensive list.
Perhaps emboldened by President Donald Trump, state laws related to immigration have nearly doubled from the first half of 2016 to the first six months of 2017, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Seitz first proposed this change to workers' compensation in 2009. He has introduced the bill several times before but took a break after the 2012 presidential election, when Latino voters voted for President Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney by 71 percent to 27 percent.
"Colleagues were nervous about offending illegal aliens or immigrants in general," Seitz said. But after the 2016 election, "(t)here has been a renewed attention to illegal aliens."
Seitz's co-sponsor, Rep. Householder, wants to be speaker of the Ohio House in 2018. Another speaker contender, Rep. Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, voted for the earlier budget that contained language to ban immigrants here illegally from receiving workers' compensation. He is not currently a co-sponsor of the new bill.