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California Law Protects All Employees, Regardless of Immigration Status, From Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation in the Workplace

By Jenna M. Rangel, Esq.

Federal immigration law prohibits the employment of “unauthorized aliens” in the United States; but the reality is, there are over 1.85 million undocumented workers in the California workplace. That’s nearly 10% of the total workforce who, unfortunately, experience workplace violations to a higher degree than most. This is in part because employers take advantage of workers’ fears of immigration consequences, and in part because these workers do not know their rights.

A recent California Supreme Court case recognized this reality and held that all employees – whether or not they are legally authorized to work in the United States – have the right to a workplace free of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, and have the right to bring suit if their rights are violated.

In Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co., Vicente Salas was a seasonal production line worker for Sierra Chemical, a manufacturer and distributor of water-treatment chemicals for swimming pools, among other things. Due to the rise and fall in demand, Sierra Chemical generally laid workers off over the winter and re-hired them in the spring and summer. After working for Sierra Chemical for a few years, Mr. Salas injured his back while lifting crates and had to be taken to the hospital on two separate occasions. Mr. Salas filed a workers’ compensation claim and was placed on modified work duties (including restrictions against heavy-lifting and prolonged standing). Though the company initially accommodated Mr. Salas, it eventually laid him off and refused to re-hire him until his doctor cleared him to work without modifications.  Mr. Salas then filed a lawsuit for disability discrimination and for retaliation for filing his workers’ compensation claim.

Sierra Chemical fought the lawsuit by providing evidence that Mr. Salas had used a fraudulent Social Security Number on his employment documents. Basically, their claim was that even if they did discriminate and retaliate against Mr. Salas, they would have refused to re-hire him anyway because of his undocumented status.

Ultimately, the Court determined that regardless of whether Mr. Salas was authorized to work in the United States or not, he was still entitled to the protections of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in employment. Any other ruling would give employers a free pass to discriminate against undocumented workers.

If you have experienced discrimination, harassment, or retaliation in your workplace, you may have a case against your employer, regardless of your immigration status. For more information about your rights, please call us at (619) 342-8000.