Unauthorized workers in Harvey clean-up: out of luck

The large unauthorized construction workforce in Texas is extremely vulnerable due to many employers not having to pay workers’ comp benefits and due to ICE enforcement.

Harvey Meets Workers’ Comp: New Horror Movie?

By Peter Rousmaniere, published by www.workerscompensation.com August 30, 2017

Harvey brought 50 inches of rain and a thick dossier of irony to the workers’ compensation system in Texas. This natural disaster, like others have in the past, will challenge an economic safety net like workers’ comp to deliver assured and complete response.

Special factors at play in Texas may trigger a combination of grief, schadenfreude, and uncertainty.

Already hundreds if not thousands of employers in the state are gearing up for a surge of business in cleanup and repair. Can employers and workers depend on workers’ comp? Well, it depends. The catastrophe struck in the state with the greatest contradictions in how the workers’ comp system is supposed to work.

Are the cleanup and repair workers actually eligible for workers’ comp coverage?

In any other state, in any other year, the simple answer is yes. But in Texas, employers do not need to participate in the workers’ comp system. The opt-out program (technically, its non-subscriber program) covers very many small employers. How they respond to work injuries may be anyone’s guess, including themselves, since being outside workers’ comp means the employer is accountable to no one. Though they are supposed to file an intent to opt-out, the state is lax in enforcing that. The employer can drop off an injured worker at a community hospital and not pay a cent for the worker’s medical care. It need not pay a dime for wage replacement.

The employer can, to be sure, be sued for negligence. But what lawyer is going on a fool’s errand to sue for negligence a dry wall contractor with somewhere between 2 and 10 employees depending on the jobs at hand?

Further, the employer can legally threaten to fire the injured worker, or his co-workers, if anyone threatens to file a suit or so much as complain about having to make up his or her own work injury benefits. Intimidation is legal in opt-out.

Typically, in other states, when workers try to cover their work injury medical bills with their health insurance plan, the plan sends a team to the workers’ comp insurer to recover their medical spending. But Texas in this regard is not typical. Opt-out employers don’t have insurers.

And, Texas has the largest percentage of the population of all 50 states that do not have health insurance. (When almost every other state’s uninsured population plummeted due to Obamacare, Texas’ did not.) A lot of the cost is likely paid by the worker or out of hospital free care.

What about the undocumented workforce?

“Where are those undocumented workers now that we need them?” the construction industry may be asking. It has, according to press reports, grumbled months ago about Trump’s immigration enforcement. A 2013 study by the Workers Defense Project estimated that half of the construction workforce in the state is undocumented. These workers concentrate in low skilled assignments — such as hauling destroyed carpets from flooded homes, clearing out debris and carrying in building materials. In other words, the work created by Harvey.

We can disagree on the wisdom of stepped-up immigration enforcement and on the best long term solutions for the country’s eight million undocumented workers. But consider the facts on the ground. As Voltaire was reputed to have quipped, at 5 PM we are all economists.

Here is the problem: If Homeland Security continues to root out undocumented persons, how are the contractors who depend on them going to hire them? And if hired, in today’s climate of enforcement would an undocumented worker of employer covered by workers’ compensation rationally ever want to file a workers’ compensation claim out of fear of being discovered and deported?

Major disasters find a way to exacerbate unresolved stresses that preceded — in land use, economic relations, public policy. This was the case in the Chicago fire of 1871, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, Katrina, and now with Harvey. Is the state of work injury benefits in Texas a model or a monster?

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