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The now-dead club where Gonzalez was injured.

In a case that began five years ago and finally put to rest today, the D.C. Court of Appeals has decided that undocumented workers count as “employees” under the District’s Workers Compensation Act—a reassuring ruling for anyone persecuted by an employer based on immigration status.

Here’s the story. Back in June 2005, Palemon Casarrubias Gonzalez was working as a busboy at “a restaurant and bar owned by petitioner Asylum Company” (which I’m fairly sure is the now-shuttered MCCXXIII on Connecticut) when he was struck in the right eye by a bottle, dislocating his lens and requiring surgery to recover some vision. When club part-owner David Karim—who now runs the super-swank club Josephine—received Gonzalez’ medical bills, he figured out that the worker had applied for the job using the name and papers of his cousin Armando Gonzalez, and that Palemon was actually an illegal immigrant.

In August, Gonzalez filed for workers compensation benefits, which Karim failed to pay. Two years later, an administrative law judge of the Department of Employment Services ruled that Gonzalez was entitled to benefits for a seven-month period at his average weekly rate, plus ten percent for Karim’s tardiness, which would amount to a total of about $11,000. Karim appealed to DOES’ Compensation Review Board, which upheld the lower judge’s decision, and finally to Court of Appeals. As part of his case, Karim argued that the Gonzalez’ employment contract was unenforceable, since he had used false documents to get the job (and, Karim said, he thought federal law prohibited paying benefits to an illegal immigrant).

In order to rule, the judges had to decide whether undocumented immigrants are included in the definition of “employee” under the Workers Compensation Act, which hadn’t yet come up to the appeals court level. The answer was an unequivocal “yes,” and also that federal law would not preclude payment of workers compensation to undocumented workers.

It’s not a total victory for Gonzalez, since the Court remanded to the CRB the determination of whether Karim actually acted in bad faith in failing to pay out benefits—Karim says he didn’t know he was supposed to file a “controversion notice” disputing a worker’s right to compensation—which means that he might not actually get the $11,000 initially awarded.

And of course, there are still a lot of obstacles to actually getting injury compensation for any worker, since they have to go through a lengthy and confusing filing process for what may amount to only a few hundred bucks.

But it is a victory for undocumented workers in the District, who now can be a little more sure they enjoy equal rights to their legal or native-born colleagues.

Photo by flickr user Somewhat Frank.