In Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co., the California Supreme Court held that an undocumented worker who was wrongfully terminated in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) may be awarded lost pay damages, even if the employee was ineligible for employment to begin with under federal law.

Salas was a seasonal production line employee with Sierra Chemical.  He injured his back while stacking crates on the production line and claimed he needed to change his work routine while he was recovering.  Salas filed a workers’ compensation claim for his injury, but his employer told him that he could only return to work after he obtained a doctor’s release.  He never returned.  Sometime thereafter, his employer learned that Salas had used falsified identification documents to gain employment and was not authorized to work.

Salas sued his employer alleging that it failed to provide reasonable accommodations for his disability and that it was punishing him for filing a workers’ compensation claim in violation of the FEHA.  The employer argued that because Salas was never authorized to work and used false documents to conceal this fact, he should not be entitled to damages.

The case highlights the complex interplay between state and federal law with respect to undocumented workers.  California law states that “[a]ll protections, rights and remedies available under state law . . . are available to all individuals regardless of immigration status . . . .”  Federal law requires that employers verify the work eligibility of all new employees.

Attempting to reconcile these principles, the Salas Court stated that federal law does not prohibit a California employer from paying an employee who obtained employment through falsified documents, so long as it was unaware of the employee’s unauthorized work status.  It held that a court may award lost pay damages for any period before the employer discovers the employee’s ineligibility to work.

The Court went on to state that “not allowing unauthorized workers to obtain state remedies for unlawful discharge . . . would effectively immunize employers that . . . discriminate against their workers on grounds such as disability . . . or fail to pay the wages that state law requires.”

The Salas case makes clear that an employer who unknowingly hires an undocumented worker cannot escape a judgment awarding damages under FEHA for the period before the employer learns of the employee’s unauthorized work status.

Mark Chuang is a summer associate in Barger & Wolen’s San Francisco office.