Undocumented workers whose rights have been violated have long feared that the Courts would not offer them protection. This fear was heightened in 2002, when the United States Supreme Court decided in Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board that undocumented workers should not be awarded damages for unfair employment practices because this type of relief runs counter to the Immigration Reforms and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). In Hoffman Plastics, the company hired Jose Castro, an undocumented worker. Because Mr. Castro participated in union-organizing he was fired. Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is it illegal to fire someone for engaging in union activity. Mr. Castro sued. The Supreme Court ruled that because Mr. Castro was undocumented, he was not entitled to recover “backpay.”
The decision in Hoffman Plastics allowed employers who hired undocumented employees to act in violation of employment and labor law without fear of any legal consequences. Fortunately, California law makers recognized the inequity of this ruling. And, within months of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the California legislature passed Senate Bill 1818 (codified in Civil Code Section 3339) which provides that California state law protections for employees extended to all employees regardless of immigration status.
Yet, despite the passage of this law, there remained questions about whether the ruling in Hoffman Plastics would preclude employees in California from recovering back pay. That issue was definitively resolved by the California Supreme Court in Salas v. Sierra Chem. Co, 59 Cal. 4th 407 (2014), in which the Court found that state law protections for employees extended to everyone, regardless of immigration status. Thus, an undocumented employee who pursues a claim for violation of California employment laws can pursue a claim, although damages will be cutoff on the date that the worker’s status is discovered by the employer.
The decision in Salas is an enormous victory for employees, as it guarantees that all workers – regardless of their immigration status – can bring claims for violations of workplace laws. This decision sends a clear messages that in California, everyone is entitled to fair treatment in the workplace!