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An illegal immigrant injured on the job is entitled to state worker compensation benefits, according to a Nebraska Court of Appeals decision released Tuesday.

Odilon Visoso was injured May 9, 2006, at Cargill in Schuyler when a 100-pound slab of meat fell from a hook and hit the back of his head, neck and shoulder.

Visoso, who used the name Adam Rodriguez, continued to work at Cargill on light duty until surgery in early October 2008. The company fired him late that same month because he was an illegal worker.

The appellate court upheld a Worker Compensation Court decision that the worker compensation law covers all employees injured on the job -- even those in the country illegally.

So Visoso was entitled to weekly benefits of $343.04 tied to his wages at Cargill, future medical expenses for treatment of his cervical spine injury and payment of mileage for travel related to his injury.

Attorneys for Cargill Meat Solutions argued that because Visoso was an illegal immigrant and couldn't legally work, he was disqualified from receiving workers compensation benefits.

But the court ruled the Legislature enacted worker compensation laws to "relieve injured workers from the adverse economic effects caused by a work-related injury or occupational disease," the court said.

And workers include every person in the service of an employer, "including aliens."

"We find that although Visoso cannot legally work in the United States because of his immigration status, he is nonetheless an ‘employee' or ‘worker' who, as a general proposition, is covered by the Nebraska Workers' Compensation Act," according to the decision written by Judge Richard Sievers.

The opposite decision -- disqualifying illegal immigrants from worker compensation benefits -- would have encouraged companies to hire more undocumented workers, said Ryan Holsten, a Lincoln attorney for Visoso.

"If companies weren't responsible for workers' compensation, they could hire more illegals, then when they got hurt say, 'Oh, too bad. We are not going to pay your benefits,'" Holsten said in a phone interview.

The Appellate Court also said a decision on whether Visoso was entitled to use vocational rehabilitation services could not be made until he reaches maximum medical recovery and his impairments and restrictions are known.

The Nebraska Supreme Court, in an earlier case, determined an illegal immigrant who intended to stay in the U.S. was not entitled to rehab services, where the goal is to return a person to suitable employment.

One of the unanswered questions is whether the state must provide vocational rehab if the person is returning to Mexico, Holsten said.

Reach Nancy Hicks at 473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com.

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