The Supreme Court ruled March 27 that a California plastics company does not owe back wages to an illegal immigrant. The case was being watched closely by business, labor and immigrant groups.
The court sided with Hoffman Plastic Compounds Inc., a Paramount, Calif., PVC compounder that has waged a 13-year legal battle with the National Labor Relations Board.
The case began in 1989, when NLRB ruled that Hoffman illegally fired several workers to squelch a union drive. When one of the workers admitted under oath in 1993 that he was an illegal immigrant, the company and the government began a court fight over whether the company had to pay more than $120,000 in back wages and interest to the former worker.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, overruled a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington and said the company is not required to pay the wages to former blender operator Jose Castro.
Castro, who was born in Mexico, presented the birth certificate of a friend to get the job.
``Awarding back pay in a case like this not only trivializes the immigration laws, it also condones and encourages future violations,'' Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote, for the majority.
``The board asks that we ... award back pay to an illegal alien for years of work not performed, for wages that could not have been lawfully earned, and for a job obtained in the first instance by a criminal fraud,'' Rehnquist wrote.
The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Stephen Breyer, said companies would have an incentive to violate labor laws if illegal immigrants were given less protection than legal workers.
Breyer said the majority opinion means companies can hire illegal workers ``with a wink and a nod'' as a way to lower their labor costs: ``In the absence of the back-pay weapon, employers could conclude that they can violate the labor laws at least once with impunity.''
President Ron Hoffman was pleased with the ruling.
``I figure it this way — after 13 years of persevering, justice has finally been done. I had my doubts over the years.''
Hoffman said he has spent about $45,000 fighting the case.
An NLRB spokeswoman declined to comment.
Hoffman lawyer Ryan McCortney said the case could have broader implications. It could mean companies in other situations now would not have to pay back wages to workers that the company did not know were illegal aliens, he said.
The government said Hoffman illegally targeted several employees, including Castro, who helped with the union drive, but the company disputes that and said the workers were laid off when business slumped. Still, Hoffman did not formally challenge the NLRB decision that it fired the workers illegally.
Hoffman said he called the workers back a few months later when business improved, but the NLRB said the recall notice was not specific enough.