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Tuesday September 25, 2001 -- 10:51 AM ET

Court Accepts Illegal Immigrant Case

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court reopened debate on the rights of illegal immigrant workers Tuesday, agreeing to decide if a company should be forced to pay an employee fired for supporting a union.

The National Labor Relations Board had urged the court to let stand a ruling in favor of the fired worker, who was in the country illegally.

Hoffman Plastic Compound Inc. is not contesting a board finding that it broke the law in firing Jose Castro in 1989. But the company said the Mexican national deserved no compensation.

Castro had a minimum wage job at Hoffman's plant in Paramount, Calif., when he and three other employees were laid off after they supported efforts to unionize the plant.

The company was ordered to rehire the four and give them back pay.

Hoffman then found out Castro had used identification of an American friend, named Jose Castro, to get the job.

That began an eight-year fight between Hoffman and the labor board over the rights of the illegal worker.

"Undocumented workers are not lawfully available for employment and, thus, not eligible for an award of back pay,'' the company told the court in urging it to take the appeal.

The man known as Castro operated a plant blender, used to mix and cook plastic formulas. He did not speak English, nor did half of the other plant workers, according to court records.

The company was accused of using coercive tactics in interrogating employees to find out who supported a union. All employees engaged in the organizing lost their jobs, according to court records. Castro had handed out union cards to fellow employees.

The labor board ordered the company to pay him $66,951 in 1998. The board told the Supreme Court that if Castro is denied money for wrongful firing, other companies will believe they can exploit workers who do not have proper documentation. The board said that would interfere with participation in union activities.

The Supreme Court has already ruled that undocumented workers are protected by federal labor laws.

Hoffman and the man who used the name Castro have had back-and-forth victories. Initially, an administrative judge ruled in 1993 that Castro was entitled to nothing. The labor board overturned that decision in 1998.

The case yielded three different decisions out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. In the final one, on a 5-4 vote, the court said he was entitled to back pay.

"If employers are exempt from paying back pay to undocumented workers, they will favor undocumented over documented workers, thus increasing the incentives for unlawful immigration,'' the court said.

The court said he must be paid what he would have earned from 1989 until 1993, when Hoffman learned he was not a legal worker.

The case is Hoffman Plastic Compound, Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board, 00-1595.