California Supreme Court Reviews Undocumented Worker’s Rights in Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co.

June 4, 2013


The Background: California’s Undocumented Workers

California is no stranger to the many issues surrounding immigration.  The Golden State is home to 27% of the undocumented immigrants in the United States The undocumented population in California exceeds 2.4 million; this number more than doubles that of any other state.  Over 6% of the state’s population are undocumented.  Both common sense and labor studies tell us that undocumented workers are here to seek employment.  It is also no secret that they have been very successful in finding jobs; 97% of undocumented men and 62% of undocumented women are in the labor force. Nationwide, undocumented workers comprise 5% of the workforce. They are often presented with poorer working conditions and lower compensation than U.S. Citizen laborers.  The undocumented workers earn less money; two-thirds make less than twice the federal minimum wage. The nationwide median household income of immigrant families in 2007 was $36,000; for U.S.-born families, it was $50,000. For more statistics on undocumented workers, see “A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States” and “Undocumented Immigrants: Facts and Figures”.

Because employment and immigration are so closely connected, and because California is home to the lion’s share of undocumented workers living in the U.S., developments in California’s labor law will impact millions of lives.  Currently, legal protections for undocumented workers are in a state of flux.  The California Supreme court is reviewing Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co. and has depublished the Court of Appeal’s 2011 opinion of the case.   (The ongoing Supreme Court case summary is available here.)  The outcome of this case could alter the developing landscape of immigration and labor law in California.  Whether you are a worker, employer, legal practitioner or student – read on, because this decision might affect you.


What Happened in Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co.?

Vicente Salas suffered two back injuries during his work on Sierra Chemical’s production line.  Salas was employed on a seasonal basis because the company’s pool water treatment chemicals are mostly in demand during the warmer months.  Salas brought a Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) claim against Sierra alleging his employer declined to rehire him one season on the grounds that he had not fully recovered from his most recent back injury.  Salas alleged that Sierra unlawfully failed to hire him and discriminated against him for having filed a Workers’ Compensation claim.

Sierra essentially moved to dismiss Salas’ claim on the grounds that he was allegedly an undocumented worker who submitted fake documents to prove his work authorization.  The trial court granted summary judgment against Salas, and the Court of Appeal affirmed.  The Court of Appeal’s (now depublished) opinion is available online here. The lower courts’ opinions stood for the viewpoint that undocumented workers  cannot claim lost wages from their former employers, even if they were fired for an unlawful reason under California law.  For a detailed look at the Salas case’s history in the lower courts, read Steven G. Pearl’s “California Employment Law Blog” here.


What Does the Supreme Court’s Grant of Review Mean?

The California Supreme court granted review of Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co. on November 16, 2011; all seven justices favored review of the case.  This grant of review automatically depublished the lower court’s opinion.  The court will decide on two issues.  First: Did the trial court err in dismissing Salas’ claim based on his use of false documentation to obtain employment in the first instance?  Second: Did Senate Bill 1818 (California laws which state that workers are entitled to all remedies under California law, regardless of immigration status) preclude application of the legal doctrines used to dismiss Salas’ claim?

With the Supreme Court poised to decide on such a highly contested issue, many perceive that the stakes are high.   Forty organizations, ranging from law schools to non-profit groups, have joined in filing amicus curae briefs in favor of the appellant Salas.  One group, called Employers Group, has filed amicus curae in favor of respondent Sierra.   Vicente Salas’ supporters feel that the Court of Appeal’s decision gives employers near-total immunity to mistreat and unlawfully fire undocumented workers, a segment of the population that is already vulnerable to workplace abuses.   Employers, on the other hand, argue that they should not be required to pay legal damages to employees who have “unclean hands” because they sought work illegally.  The Court of Appeal’s decision partially rested on a factual determination that Sierra would not have hired Vicente Salas had they known he was undocumented.  However, Salas provided evidence that tended to show that Sierra knowingly hired many undocumented workers, or at least turned a blind eye.  One legal practitioner described this troublesome phenomenon as such: “After Salas, employers could knowingly hire undocumented workers, and then later use the employee’s undocumented status to prevent them from seeking just compensation and fair working conditions if a problem arose.”

The Supreme Court will have an opportunity to clarify the California laws which are sometimes collectively referred to as Senate Bill 1818.  Passed in 1997 in response to a U.S. Supreme Court case called Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB (opinion here), Senate Bill 1818 includes labor and government codes which command that: “All protections, rights, and remedies available under state law, except any reinstatement remedy prohibited by federal law, are available to all individuals regardless of immigration status who have applied for employment, or who are or who have been employed, in this state.”  The exact meaning of these laws, and how they intersect with other state and federal immigration laws, is still being shaped by court decisions. (See Farmers Bros. Coffee v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board here for a discussion of the legislative history and federal preemption issues surrounding Senate Bill 1818.)  Will the Supreme court hold that California’s legislature plainly meant to guarantee remedies for plaintiffs like Vicente Salas in Senate Bill 1818?

The Sommers Employment Law Group Blog is tracking this case and we will provide updates as they become available.  In the meantime, please share your thoughts and predictions on the case in the comments section.  Thanks for reading.