Undocumented workers would be barred from receiving workers’ compensation benefits in budget legislation passed by the Ohio House of Representatives and now in the state Senate.

The bill includes an amendment that would require the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation to verify a worker’s status when they apply for workers’ compensation. It also would punish employers that knowingly hire undocumented workers.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, said there are about 8 million undocumented workers in the American workforce and that workers in the farming and construction industries, two jobs that result in a high volume of workers’ compensation claims, make up about 40 percent of the American workforce.

“So it stands to reason if that is the case nationally, things would not be much different in Ohio,” Seitz told Watchdog.org.

Mike Shields, a researcher with Policy Matters Ohio,  said that undocumented workers don’t necessarily have a high number of claims, but that the industries they work in have a high risk of injury.

“One of the interesting things about it is, folks who are undocumented tend to work in industries more injury prone, things like agriculture, food processing is a big one,” Shields said. “So it is true that they’re working in roles that are more likely to result in their injury and, of course, more likely for them to need workers’ compensation, but it’s also true that this is based on the type of role not the type of person.”

Seitz has tried to pass stand-alone versions of this amendment several times since 2009 but has not had success. Adding this provision onto the budget has given it a fighting chance as it passed in the House 65-29. He believes it will have a positive impact on the state.

“To the extent that claimants are denied workers’ comp benefits if they are undocumented workers and to the extent that we have, through the direct right of action provision, encouraged employers to adhere to federal law in assiduously checking out those they would hire, those two things will have a salutary effect not only financially but, more importantly, on reducing the number of undocumented workers that are in Ohio,” Seitz said.

Financially, Seitz won’t know the true impact until he sees how well the bureau is able to enforce the law.

Almost all agree that when dealing with undocumented workers, it is nearly impossible to get accurate numbers. So, nobody really knows how big the problem of undocumented workers claiming workers’ compensation is and how big of an impact this provision will have.

Melissa Vince of the press and media department of the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation told Watchdog.org that the state doesn’t track workers’ compensation claims by status and this provision was not something they had requested be put in the budget.

Shields thinks the bill could end up placing a bigger financial burden on taxpayers. If injured employees aren’t able to get financial help from their employers, they will end up using public health care.

“When someone goes to the emergency room with an injury they get treated, you know, hospitals are required by law to treat them and they don’t always get fully compensated for the care that they provide, so when we take away this protection it creates an obligation on the part of taxpayers, not on the part of the employer who has benefitted from the workers’ work,” Shields said.

Bill opponent Rep. Dan Ramos, D-Lorain, called this bill “a solution seeking a problem,” saying the bill will incentivize employers to hire undocumented workers.

“We are actively making it cheaper for unscrupulous employers in the state of Ohio to hire undocumented workers than to hire citizens,” Ramos said.

Employers won’t have incentives to make sure their employees are working in safe environments if they don’t have to provide workers’ compensation, Ramos said.

“There’s a sort of, I would say, recklessness about the fact that this is harmful, of course, to undocumented folks, that’s obvious, but it’s also harmful to workers in general because of the incentive that it creates for employers selectively to hire people who are undocumented and aren’t entitled to protection,” Shields said.

The budget now has to be passed in the Senate. Seitz said he’s been talking to members of the Senate to make sure they understand the provision.

Opponents like Shields fear that because the budget must be passed, this amendment is more likely to also be passed than it has in years past.

Sen. President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said in a statement to Watchdog.org, “I think the more important question is if you have employers who are knowingly employing undocumented workers, should there be consequences there too, what’s the problem that we are trying to solve here?”