Undocumented Immigrants Are Entitled to Unpaid Wages
Under the Federal Minimum Wage and Overtime Laws
In a question of first impression in the 1st Circuit, Justice O’Toole of the Federal District Court in the District of Massachusetts, held that “the plaintiffs’ immigration status is irrelevant to their FLSA claim.” That means that even undocumented immigrants, often called by the less flattering name “illegal aliens”, are entitled to protection under federal minimum wage and overtime laws.
Justice O’Toole reached his holding in an “Opinion and Order” concerning cross-motions to compel discovery in the case Jin-Ming Lin and Ch-Wai Chao v. Chinatown Restaurant Corp., et. al., Docket Number 09-11519-GAO. The defendants had moved to compel the plaintiffs’ responses to written discovery seeking information about their immigration status. The court denied the defendants’ motion on the grounds that their discovery requests were irrelevant.
Courts from other circuits have considered the same question and reached the same conclusion, relying on a variety of reasons. For example, some point to the fact that the U.S. Department of Labor has taken the position that undocumented immigrants can recover under the FLSA. See Zavala v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 393 F. Supp. 2d 295, 324 (D.N.J. 2005), Flores v. Amigon, 233 F.Supp. 2d 462, 464 n.1 (E.D.N.Y. 2002). Others have found that working undocumented immigrants are “employees” within the meaning of the FLSA and thus entitled to its remedies. See Villareal v. El Chile, Inc., 266 F.R.D. 207, 212-14 (N.D. Ill. 2010); Motoya v. S.C.C.P. Painting Contrators, Inc., 589 F. Supp. 2d 569, 577 (D. Md. 2008). Still others, rely on the theory that permitting recovery under the FLSA supports federal immigration policy. See Flores v. Amigon, 233 F. Supp. 2d 462. 464 n. 1 (E.D.N.Y 2002) and Singh v. Jutla & C.D. & R’s Oil, Inc., 214 F. Supp. 2d 1056, 1061-62 (N.D. Cal. 2002).
Of course, immigration is a complicated issue, and, as Justice O’Toole noted, “the economic incentive underpinning federal labor and immigration policy are in tension.” In short, remedies provided for undocumented workers provide an incentive for those workers to come to the U.S. On the other hand, limiting the scope of the FLSA to those legally authorized to work in the U.S. creates an incentive for employers to hire undocumented immigrants. See Singh, 214 F. Supp. 2d at 1062.
But whatever your opinion about immigration policy, there is an undeniable equitable appeal to enforcing the wage statutes against employers who hire undocumented immigrants, instead of those legally authorized to work in the U.S., in order to avoid paying minimum wages and overtime.
After all, doesn’t it make sense to penalize those who exploit workers, as opposed to those who have come to this country seeking the liberties and opportunities that make up the core of our American values?