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January 31, 2006

Mexican Immigrants save Vermont milk industry

Mexican workers are effectively helping to save Vermont’s cherished milk farms. The farms are in danger of being wiped out by competition. Milk production accounts for 80% of the state’s farm output and dairy farms are an icon of Vermont life. Mexican immigrants today account for an estimated on third of milk farm labor in the state. Farmers say that help is otherwise not available.

A recent report by John Dillon on Vermont Public Radio on Mexican workers on Vermont farms revealed how the state is implicitly collaborating with farmers to ensure that undocumented workers are available. It starts with the submission of the Citizenship and Immigration Services’ I-9 form.

According to the story, the Vermont Department of Agriculture advises farmers

To make certain that the documents that are required for the I-9 are there. The employer, the farmer, has no requirement to test the validity of the documents.

It’s kind of like “don’t ask, don’t tell". The news story said that

Federal immigration officials usually leave the farms alone. But workers can get turned in and deported if they get a speeding ticket, or if they're stopped by police for a routine traffic violation…. Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr says it's common knowledge that the papers many Mexicans carry are fake.

IL Governor supports Panel on Latino Work Safety

In late 2005 Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois gave his support to the findings and recommendations of a Panel on Latino Workplace Injuries and Fatalities. I will be delivering more information in the future about this panel, the first such major state panel on immigrant work safety to my knowledge. It is a model for other states to emulate.

Go here for the 11/9/05 press release.

According to the press release the Panel’s top five recommendations are:

Creating a Worker Safety Fund to support a collaborative partnership and outreach strategy statewide between community-based organizations and government agencies to, among other things, develop worker safety materials in Spanish and provide health and safety training in Spanish.
Streamlining and coordinating government services for workers and business in the state by relocating the On-Site Safety and Health Consultation team to the Illinois Department of Labor (IDOL) from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO).
Strengthening enforcement of the existing Day Labor Services Act, including increased penalties against unlawful day labor agencies, and allowing workers to sue employers for damages.
Developing a statewide data collection system to help centralize and analyze occupational injury and fatality data among Latinos gathered by agencies, community-based organizations, and educational institutions and convene in annual conferences to assess and review data.
Supporting further reforms to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act, including 1) establishing a stop-work order when an employer is uninsured; 2) establishing an injured workers’ benefit fund; 3) providing workers’ compensation to agricultural workers; and 4) ensuring adequate workers’ compensation coverage at worksites that use temporary labor.

MA program on employer insurance fraud

Immigrant workers are often exposed to predatory employer practices which violate labor laws. One place to start enforcement is in workers compensation and, in particular, workers comp insurance. Here is good example of state initiative.

Massachusetts’ Department of Industrial Accidents has improved significantly its enforcement of workers compensation insurance requirements in the past few years. Its program, which you can find here, gives you a sense of what it takes to give teeth to enforcement. It has greatly improved the success rate of enforcement.

Below is a excerpt dealing with stop work orders:

The leads can come from an employee of the company, a competitor or the Massachusetts Rating Bureau. The lead is assigned to an investigator in the area where the business is located who then conducts an investigation.
If the investigation confirms that the business is violating the statute, the investigator will notify the business and allow the business to come into compliance. If the business does not respond to the investigator or refuses to come into compliance by obtaining the requisite insurance, the investigator will then conduct an on-site investigation at the location of the business.
If the on-site investigation confirms the preliminary investigation, the investigator will then issue a Stop Work Order (SWO), which is a cease and desist order requiring the business to shut down. The business will then be given a right to appeal the SWO within 10 days.

I thank Workers Comp Insider for alerting me to this article by Gregory White, who as general counsel runs the enforcement operations of DIA.

A number of states have beefed up resources to detect and go after employers to commit labor violations, including failure to pay employees for wages earned, failure to pay overtime, failure to make unemployment insurance contributions, and failure to purchase workers compensation insurance.

January 30, 2006

Where undocumented immigrants live and work

In January 2004,the Urban Institute published a useful overview of the undocumented population in the United States. Go here for the entire report.

The Institute estimated there were at that time 9.3 million immigrants, of which 6 million were workers. 96% of men work and 62% of women work.

Breakdown of the total population of undocumented immigrants is:

U.S. total (in millions) 9.3; California, 2.4; Texas, 1.1; Florida, 0.9; New York, 0.7; Illinois, 0.4; New Jersey, 0.4; all others, all others, 3.5.

January 29, 2006

Whom day laborers work for, what they do

A snapshot from On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States:

Principal employers of day laborers are (1) contractors in the construction and landscape gardening business and (2) private individuals. Two thirds of day laborers are hired repeatedly by the same employer.

At least three quarters of day laborers have work in most or all of the following occupations: construction labor, mover, gardner/landscaper, and painter. About two thirds have worked as roofers. Other common occupations are house cleaner, carpenter, and drywall installer.

The vast majority –- 83% -- rely on day labor as their sole source of income, and 70% seek work at least five days a week. One third seek work seven days a week.

Go here for a full copy of On The Corner.

How Mexicans in U.S. send money back to Mexico

Money flows from Mexican workers in the United States to Mexico are approaching $20 billion a year. I have excerpted from the Financial Times (subscription required) an article on this topic, describing methods of transmission and surprising ways in which the money once received is used.

Excerpts from the Financial Times, Home towns and US banks grow better at reaping benefit of migrants’ dollars, By John Authers 12/12/05

Take a walk along Broadway in the New York district of Harlem, and you can begin to understand the recent strength of the Mexican peso against the dollar. Now in a largely Hispanic neighbourhood, with a pocket of Mexican migrants from the state of Puebla, Broadway is lined by remittance houses, all advertising in Spanish what they say are cheap rates.

It is a phenomenon repeated in Mexican neighbourhoods across the US. In the past few years, the economic weight of Mexico’s migrant labourers has begun to make itself felt south of the border. The migrants’ dollars help to explain the strength of the peso, and they are also beginning to wreak much more profound social changes at home.

The numbers, as published by the Bank of Mexico, tell an extraordinary story. For the first 10 months of this year, the money sent home to Mexico from the US in family remittances was $16.5bn – only just below the $16.6bn that was sent back during all of 2004. It is also $10bn more than the $6.6bn remitted to Mexico in 2000.

This money was sent mostly in transactions of about $300, and is increasingly sent by electronic transfer, rather than the traditional money orders.

Banxico is careful to state that the rise may not be as sharp as it appears, because its information-gathering has improved. Its earlier figures may therefore have understated the phenomenon.


Migrants now have a greater array of options when they want to send money home. In 2002, many banks in the US decided they would accept consular ID cards, known as the matricula, as proof of identity from migrants wanting to open bank accounts. The cards were available from consulates to all Mexicans, even those working in the US illegally.

City and state municipal authorities across the US were happy to recognise the cards, which could also be used to obtain driving licences. The idea was to regularise or improve the status of undocumented labourers.

The effect of the cards was immediate. Wells Fargo, one of the largest US banks in the areas with high rates of Mexican immigration, reported that 400,000 people used the cards to open accounts with its branches. The cards ushered in competition, with Citigroup, Bank of America and HSBC all also offering remittance services.

Technical improvements have also helped. For example, the Poni card, backed by several patents, is now available in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson and Chicago and will soon spread to areas with higher concentrations of Mexicans such as California, New York and Texas. Migrants can buy Poni cards, which come in various peso denominations and look much like phone cards, in US groceries, and scratch off the foil on the back to reveal a 16-digit PIN number. Armed with that PIN, a Mexican can take one of the 1m Poni cards in circulation south of the border, and use it to withdraw that amount from an ATM. Each PIN can only be used once, and the ATM will respond only to the PIN. The card’s backers believe that its key advantage, compared with a bank account, is that it maintains anonymity. It is also sold the same way as phone cards, which are already popular items among migrants.


There is controversy, however, over the impact of remittances on Mexico, and even whether all the money that shows up in the Bank of Mexico figures really goes to poor families.

Rodolfo Tuiran of Sedesol, the social development ministry, stirred the controversy earlier this year with a paper attacking the notion that remittances had helped to alleviate poverty. According to Sedesol research, if all the remittances were suddenly to stop, the proportion of Mexicans living in poverty would rise only from 47.1 per cent to 48.5 per cent. The proportion of remittance money going to poor families is even falling over time.

“For some people, remittances allow them to buy a basic basket of essential goods,” says Rodolfo Tuiran, of Sedesol, Mexico’s social development ministry. “But overall, in terms of poverty, remittances don’t have a significant impact. They do, however, have an important impact on inequality – they increase it. Of every $100 received, $75 goes to homes that aren’t poor.”


However, remittances are increasingly being channelled to productive uses. Mexicans tend to congregate with people from the same home town, leading to a network of more than 600 home-town associations across the US. Typically, they have been involved in such things as organising trans-national beauty pageants. Now they are being encouraged to pool their remittances.

Several states now have “three-for-one” programmes, where each dollar from the home-town association for a development project is matched by a dollar each from the municipal, state and federal governments.

In Zacatecas, the silver mining state that sends the highest proportion of its people to the US, the effects are dramatic. Towns with a three-for-one scheme are immaculately paved and will often have a well-restored church. Towns that do not have dirt tracks.

January 28, 2006

Jennifer Gordon: Professor, Researcher, Activist, MacArthur Fellow

This is a brief profile of an individual who, as much as anyone in America, has thrown herself into clearing the difficult pathway for immigrants towards full integration into the domestic economy.

She is Associate Professor Law at Fordham University School of Law In New York City. Go here for her academic webpage. A 1992 graduate of Harvard Law School, she devoted much of the 1990s to helping to organize Workplace Project in Hempstead, Long Island.

In her 2005 book, Suburban Sweatshops: The Fight for Immigrant Rights, she describes the struggle of many immigrants to enter the workforce and acquire step by step employee rights which American-born citizens take for granted.

In a 2005 article in the Boston Review (go here), she had this to say about working conditions and the long and exhausting effort to bring them up to minimally acceptable standards:

“Underground economy” suggests a system completely divorced from conventional labor markets. But in fact, the underground and mainstream economies are anything but divided. Immigrant workers and others move in and out of underground work. Furthermore, so-called underground businesses often operate in a relationship with larger and more formal enterprises. A name-brand garment manufacturer may depend on a chain of underground subcontractors to sew its clothing; a national superstore may contract its groundskeeping or roof repair or janitorial work to a local company that operates in the underground economy. And many enterprises are themselves formal in some regards and informal in others, complying with some but not all laws, paying workers in part on the books and in part under the table.
Since its founding thirteen years ago, the Workplace Project in Hempstead, Long Island, has grown from one desk in a room borrowed from a social-service agency into a vibrant membership organization of immigrant workers with the mission of fighting the low wages, high level of injuries, and pervasive abuses of immigrant workers on Long Island. Against the odds, the group has carried out a series of innovative organizing experiments in the underworld of immigrant work, some of which succeeded far beyond the organization’s expectations.
In its early years, the Workplace Project raised wages by over 30 percent on the Long Island street corners where day laborers wait for work—at least most of the time, in most places. They created a domestic-worker bill of rights and a model contract for domestic employers, and they forced placement agencies to promise to adhere to them—a promise that they sometimes kept. Since then, the organization has founded a very small but successful worker-owned landscaping cooperative and a much larger housecleaning co-op owned and operated by immigrant women.

January 26, 2006

Employer insurance fraud inflicts damage on workers

A not-for-attribution conversation with The Man Who Saw Everything.

Employer insurance fraud is a topic we will visit often: the toxic cocktail made by mixing strong employer incentives to cheat on workers compensation insurance with a vulnerable workforce, such as undocumented workers. An employer with a vulnerable workforce has a much greater incentive to cheat on insurance because it can expect its undocumented workers not to protest.

Here we learn from a California insurance professional, my Man Who Saw Everything. He has observed employer behavior close up for several decades from the insurer’s perspective. He knows how employers cheat.

He says that to understand the dynamics of cheating you need to know a little about cycles in the California workers compensation insurance market.

Insurance costs fell drastically in the second half other 1990s due to price-discounting competition among insurers. This left some insurers pricing their policies below any rational expectation of breaking even. Eventually some insurers failed. Insurance rates began to rise in the 2000s, to the point where workers compensation premiums in that state were over twice as high as the next costliest state in the nation. This Man Who Saw Everything believes that this huge cycle of high, low, and return to high contributed to the problem of cheating employers.

He told me:

In general, employers in high-risk occupations benefit the most when premiums fall and suffer the most when premiums rise. Roofers are among the hardest hit. While I was working for an insurance company we actually had a recent claim of a Latino worker falling from the tines of a forklift while placing shingles on a roof. This particular employer was covered but I have a roofer friend who has operated his business without WC for the past four years.
The problem is that when insurance rates fell, no employer said to itself, ”Hey, I had better bank some of these savings for tomorrow when rates rise”. Instead, they built their businesses around the lower cost factor for WC. When rates rose, they could choose to buy insurance, charge more and thereby become less competitive, or drop WC and hire workers less likely to file claims.
As to who is looking for the uninsured employers the answer is really no one. They are exposed when they draw a four after expecting an ace. One of the reliable undocumented workers falls off a roof, gets an attorney and files a claim. OSHA inspectors who cite him visit the employer, then the DOI gets involved and eventually the employer just folds his tent. You can bet they re-surface later so any enforcement agency spends considerable time chasing the same individuals.
I think this whole scenario is much more frequent in construction type industries that don’t rely on a brick and mortar location. I don’t know of any light manufacturers that exist without WC. However, I have known many who move employees on and off the books (premium fraud) and many never get caught.
The basic idea is to have two work sites. Insure one of the sites fully and correctly with a carrier but never advise of the other site. If anyone gets injured you list their work site as the one that is insured and put the worker on that payroll.
This usually gets exposed one of two ways. The carrier investigates the claim and learns of the other site when the worker provides the secondary site as the actual place of injury. It also is exposed when the employer repeatedly has workers injured on their first or second day of work. That is the day they moved the employee from one location to the other to assure the worker is covered by the WC.

undocumented worker vs. illegal alien

When applied to persons in the American workforce, these two terms refer to about the same population. At least I think so. Each has its advocates and distractors. I personally prefer undocumented worker, and generally use it. But if I cite a document which uses the term illegal alien, I also will use it to clarify the reference and out of deference to the author of the document.

Florida construction injuries and Hispanics (2005)

Construction Up, Injuries Up, but Workers' Comp Payouts Down

This article by Jessica M. Walker first appeared in the Daily Business Review on 10/20/2005. The following is an excerpt, and the full article can be acessed at the link above. We will be carrying on a regular basis will researched journalism.

This particular articles talks about the toxic cocktail one mixes with undocumented workers with employers in high injjry industries.

In his mid-teens, Hector Noriega moved from Mexico to Miami to find work in South Florida's booming construction industry. The immigrant followed his two brothers, who previously had found construction work there.
In August of last year, while he was pouring concrete at a residential construction site on Key Biscayne, the teenager was seriously injured when he came into contact with an electrical line. He survived the accident but suffered severe burns.
His attorney, Judson Cohen of Cohen Law Offices in Miami, said Noriega might lose his leg from the accident. No longer employable, Noriega, now 16, is living with family in Miami.
Most workers in Florida would have filed a workers' compensation claim, collected a payout, and that would have been the end of it. Noriega, however, is an undocumented alien and was not listed on the workers' comp policy of the subcontractor, C&C Concrete Pumping, or the Miami-based general contractor, Mackle Construction Co.
Ironically, Noriega's illegal status may allow him to proceed with a negligence lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court when a U.S. citizen or other legal worker generally could not. That could allow him to recover more than he could through a workers' comp claim. There are a growing number of undocumented workers like Noriega laboring in the South Florida construction industry, and experts say the legal situation could arise more often.
As South Florida's construction boom continues, more workers are pouring into the area in search of work. For both legal and illegal workers, the ability to recover damages for on-the-job injuries has been constrained due to a sweeping 2003 revision in the state's workers' comp law that was pushed through by business and insurance groups to curb workers' comp costs, experts say.
Steven Field, a retired University of South Florida professor who formerly directed the Florida Association of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, said he's seen a rising number of construction-related injuries over the past eight years in Florida. But despite the increase, workers' comp payouts are declining.
The total amount of workers' comp claims payouts reported to the state Department of Financial Services fell in Miami-Dade County from $5.9 million in 2002 to $2.8 million in 2004. In Broward County, payouts declined from $4.2 million in 2002 to $2.3 million in 2004. In Palm Beach County, they fell from $4.2 million in 2002 to $2.1 million in 2004.
Michael Haggard, a plaintiffs attorney who is a partner at Haggard Parks Haggard & Lewis in Coral Gables, said, "You're seeing more accidents but not more lawsuits because of the changes in the workers' comp law."
Field said the construction industry has little oversight when it comes to safety. "You see situations were no safety precautions are taken," he said. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is supposed to enforce job safety rules, "has no standing with construction industry."

January 24, 2006

Brazilian Immigrant Center (Boston, MA)

The Brazilian Immigrant Center in Boston -- o Centro do Imigrante Brasileiro -- runs a large number of educational and community action programs on behalf of the 100,000+ Brazilian workers in and around Boston. The site offers Portuguese and English options.

in English:

Who Are We???
The Brazilian Immigrant Center is a community-based organization working to empower Brazilians in the Greater Boston Area around issues of access to education, workplace rights and immigration. Our work is done through advocacy, education, organizing and leadership/capacity building.

What Are Our Goals??? The BIC's mission is to unite Brazilian immigrants to organize against economic, social and political marginalization, and to help create a just society.

in Portuques:

Quem Somos Nós???
O Centro do Imigrante Brasileiro é uma organização, baseada nesta comunidade, procurando melhorar as vidas dos brasileiros em Boston, através de treinamento, organização e desenvolvimento de suas capacidades para liderança.

Qual é o Nosso Objetivo??? O objetivo do CIB é de organizar um movimento unido de brasileiros contra discriminação econômica, social e política.

More on Nationwide survey of day labor hiring sites

Previously, I posted about a story reporting on a national survey about day labor hiring sites. I have just obtained the Internet location of the complete National survey: On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States.. (PDF)

Work injury risks in Oakland CA garment industry (2002)

This study is one of several independent studies by largely academic-based researchers on occupational risks of specific groups of workers. This one involves Asian garment workers in Oakland. It looks at injury risks and ergonomic solutions. An absorbing study, it is also exasperatingly flawed. Like the other studies (which I will introduce soon), this study reports that an extremely small portion of worker physical complaints result in workers comp claims. This is a very serious problem. But the authors fail to take into account the severity of the self-reported complaints. They appear not to have considered the very real possibility that many injuries also may have had non-occupational factors. They used no comparison group of workers. It is impossible to figure out if the work injury experience of these workers is materially worse than that of other garment workers. (I suspect it is.) The authors turned away multiple requests to discuss the study with me.

For the complete 26 page report go to We Spend Our Days Working In Pain

I have posted below the Executive Summary and Recommendations......

California sewing factories employ over 100,000 sewing machine operators, most of whom are Asian and Latina immigrants. Health and safety violations are common in the mostly small factories that employ these minimum wage workers. This report is based on the clinical findings and survey results from sewing machine operators seen at the Oakland-based Asian Immigrant Women Workers Clinic (AIWWC), a free clinic for garment workers sponsored by Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) and the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). Findings include:

  • Garment workers are being injured on the job and are at substantial risk of permanent disability from their injuries. Ninety-nine percent of AIWWC patients had one or more diagnosed work-related conditions, including back, neck or shoulder sprains or strains. Ninety-four percent experienced pain severe enough to interfere with their daily activities.

  • Working conditions in garment factories are frequently substandard. Approximately 94% of patients reported one or more problems with their workstations including inadequate seating (90%), awkward bending and twisting (67%), breathing problems due to fabric dust (48%), less than adequate rest breaks (40%), and being yelled at by their bosses (36%).

  • Garment workers typically work over 40 hours per week for low pay and no benefits. Patients reported earnings of $6.32 an hour, 25% less than the poverty level for a family of four. Only 22% of patients had health insurance and only 12% reported paid sick leave.

  • The overall health status of garment workers is far worse than that of the general population. A total of 66% of the garment workers in this study reported “poor” or “fair” health. This is three to four times higher than the rate for women in California.

  • Garment workers have inadequate access to occupational health care, specialty treatment services and general preventive health care. Nearly one-third of these women had never been seen by a health care provider for their ongoing musculoskeletal problems. Only a small fraction had been treated by clinicians trained in recognizing and treating occupational health problems.

  • Garment workers are effectively prevented from using the Workers Compensation system. Ninety-seven percent of workers seen in the clinic were eligible to file for workers compensation for their injuries, but refused to do so primarily due to lack of knowledge about the system or because they feared reprisals on the job.

  • Musculoskeletal injuries experienced by garment workers are preventable. Technology is not the problem. In many cases there are simple, cost-effective ergonomic solutions that would prevent the common musculoskeletal problems these workers experience.


The responsibility for improving health and safety conditions for garment workers rests with the apparel industry in California. However, improving the occupational health of garment workers and other low-wage immigrant workers must be made a priority by government agencies, community-based and worker organizations, public health officials, foundations and medical providers, as well as employers, if significant changes are to be made. We have identified the need for funding and policy changes to implement key recommendations in the following five areas:


  • Develop community-based occupational health clinics to provide basic treatment services statewide.
  • Increase the awareness and resouces of existing community health care providers to recognize and treat occupational health problems among low wage immigrant workers.
  • Fund research to identify other barriers that prevent low-wage immigrant workers from effectively using Workers Compensation and recommend actions to remove these barriers.


  • Fund grassroots leadership development and peer outreach and education programs to promote awareness of workplace health rights and occupational injury and illness prevention among low wage and immigrant workers.
  • Translate all pertinent Workers Compensation and worker health and safety materials into Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and other major languages spoken in California.


  • Provide safety grants to garment factories to upgrade equipment, redesign workflow and conduct worker training to reduce the number and severity of injuries on the job.
  • Develop models for proactive, community-based occupational health injury and illness prevention activities through education and outreach to these businesses and others that employ low-wage immigrant workers.


  • Ensure that all garment industry employers carry Workers Compensation insurance by requiring evidence of insurance before licenses are issued or renewed and by periodic comparisons with the insurance records kept by the Workers Compensation Rating Bureau of California.
  • Require minimal ergonomic standards (e.g., for adequate seating) in the Division of Labor Standard Enforcement (DLSE)licensing requirements for garment manufacturers. Include ergonomic and other risk factors on the checklist for enforcement of health and safety standards.
  • Identify and remove barriers that prevent low-wage immigrant workers from effectively using OSHA and other existing enforcement programs.


  • Fund research to identify the causes and implement practical and effective prevention of occupational injury and illness in the most vulnerable low-wage occupations.
  • Fund special surveillance studies to identify underreporting of injuries among garment workers and other occupations that employ primarily low-wage and immigrant workers.

Authors: Nan Lashuay, MA; Barbara J. Burgel, RN,MS,FAAN; Robert Harrison, MD,MPH; Leslie Israel, DO,MPH; Jacqueline Chan, MPH; Catherine Cusic, PA-C; Jane Chao Pun, RN, MS, NP; Ken Fong, BA; Young Shin, JD, MA.

January 23, 2006

North Carolina employer tries to keep a work fatality out of the workers comp system

The Ashville NC Citizen Times (reporter: Jay Ostendorf) carried several articles about this case, which was related to me by the health worker cited below. Certain details are omitted due to the current sensitivity of the matter at this time (1/06).

In western North Carolina, a local newspaper, The Sylvia Herald, carried a funeral home notice that Raul Carbajal, 37, of Hendersonville, North Carolina died Thursday, August 12, 2004, from injuries sustained in an vehicle accident. “A memorial service was held at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Hendersonville. The body will be sent to Comitan, Mexico, for service and burial.”

As reported by the Ashville Citizen Times, Mendez was one of eight in a pickup truck which crossed a highway grass median and on-coming lane traffic, broke through the guardrail, and rolled over spilling out passengers and tomato boxes. Mendez died; most others were hospitalized. The other occupants and condition a few days post accident were Armando Sanchez Soto, 44, stable condition; Orlando Martin Lopez, 25, stable condition; Jose Carlos Sanchez, no age available, serious but stable condition; Diego Jimenze, 23, treated and released; Adan Trujillo, 30, stable condition; Antonio Melgar, 35, stable condition; Sander Carillo, 22, treated and released.

An outreach worker at the local public health clinic arranged for an attorney to take on the cases for resolution in the workers comp system. For doing this normally uncontroversial act, the outreach worker was castigated by Mendez’s Hispanic employer, who still today (Winter, 2006) will not let this worker onto its worksite. According to this worker, the employer was intent on pretty much isolating its workers from the state’s work safety, workers comp, and other labor standards.

January 22, 2006

The Erosion of Worker Safety (1/4/06)

I wrote this Op-Ed article for the Boston Globe, starting with:

Massachusetts’ distinguished promise of worker safety is fraying. More of our workers work unsafely. When they sustain a serious work injury they are less able to access the protections of our four-generations-old workers' compensation system.
"It has become easier for employers to cut corners on their legal obligations. If Congress succeeds in criminalizing undocumented worker status, it will become even easier."

The Brazilian Immigrant Center was very helpful in my research for this article, as well as Jon Coppelman of Lynch Ryan, a workers comp expert and former union carpenter who works with small employers to reduce injuries.

Combining vulnerable undocumented workers with employers willing to violate safety and workers comp laws makes a toxic cocktail. Enforcement of workers comp laws includes making sure that employers required to purchase workers comp insurance do so. This is strictly a state responsibility.

As a first step in enforcing the insurance provisions, state regulators and prosecutors need to take enforcement provisions seriously. This means monitoring employers, translating leads quickly into investigations, and getting employers to comply with the law without necessarily shutting the employer down and thus destroying jobs.

The Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents (617-727-4900) is aggressively enforcing the employer insurance provisions. It has greatly improved the results from leads. According to the Department the large majority of employers it has targeted stay in business while complying with the law.

Unions, community activists, legal aid attorneys, and medical doctors are excellent sources of information about non-complying employers. They and state regulators need to work closely.

Here is the remainder of article....

In Massachusetts as elsewhere, employers are outsourcing cleanup, construction, and other risky work to small firms. An increasing share of the bottom quarter of the workforce is undocumented. Most of those workers are undereducated; many do not speak English; all fear deportation.
State regulators and insurers have not been up to the task of stemming abuses at the small level.
As a result, the state is replete with employers who do not purchase workers' compensation insurance or who steer their workers from workers' compensation benefits.
This problem is greater than experts in work safety and workers' compensation realize. Roughly one fifth of all in-state jobs designed for less than a high school degree are filled by undocumented workers. In some sectors this percentage is over 50 percent. Sometimes the entire workforce is off the books. Sometimes the employer creates a two-tiered personnel system: Some are paid in cash.
Workers' compensation is an insider's club, only for workers with good social and legal networks. To the injured undocumented worker the system is a gated community.
An injured undocumented worker is more likely to be treated by a doctor who does not know the workers' compensation system and safety rules. As a result, many work injuries are not admitted into the workers' compensation system of medical and lost wage benefits.
Thousands of unrelated daily setbacks of these workers congeal into streams of misleading information for regulators and insurers. State and federal statisticians are waking up to the reality that work safety statistics are corrupted. Even so, Massachusetts researchers estimate that Hispanic surnamed workers (including Brazilians) are more likely to die from work, be hospitalized from work injuries, and be injured.
Massachusetts has been riding the crest of extraordinary growth in immigrant workers, many of whom do not have valid immigration papers. University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Northeastern University, and activist groups such as the Allston-based Brazilian Immigrant Center have monitored the immigrant workforce and its challenges.
Regardless of our individual views about the merits of so many such workers in the United States, we can all concur that if an undocumented worker sustains an injury while performing a real job for an employer, she or he should obtain the protections of the workers' compensation system. A Massachusetts Supreme Court decision has said so. But there are many miles between the Supreme Court and a particular individual's story.
Let's call him Carlos. His is a true story.
He works at one of the Boston area's leading restaurants. His hand accidentally dips into a pot of boiling water. The employer induces him to complete his shift, and then arranges for him to go to an emergency room.
The employer tells Carlos to say, however far-fetched, that the injury happened at home. The hospital records the injury as not work related, and funds the treatment out of its free-care account.
On the next business day, the worker is laid off. He has no informal network of friends and family to advise him. Eventually, a community outreach center tells Carlos his rights: Hire an attorney. In cases like this, attorneys often discover that the employer has been cheating the insurer out of some premium.
Who is being abused? The worker. The misled doctor. The insurer. The state regulatory agencies that enforce safety and workers' compensation laws.
The state should create without delay a computer database of employers and their workers' compensation coverage. There is a standard term for this evidence: a ''certificate of insurance." If an employer is not listed, it is suspect.
Launch a gubernatorial task force to tackle the problem, as Illinois did.
Engage doctors to report suspicious cases, such as California requires.
Train community activists on what to look for and how to report cases of abuse. They want the laws enforced as much as do insurers.
Increase penalties for repeated safety violations and workers' compensation insurance fraud by employers.
Massachusetts can no longer afford a third-world work safety system hiding in plain sight.

Nationwide survey of day labor hiring sites

The 1/22 Sunday New York Times carried an article on a just-released nationwide study of day laborers, Broad Survey of Day Laborers Finds High Level of Injuries and Pay Violations by Steven Greenhouse. (Accesssing the article may require free registration).

The co-authors are two of the most visible academic-based researchers of immigrant labor. Working Immigrants plans to introduce their prior studies on local day labor markets (such as Chicago and Washington DC) in the near future.

Co-author Abel Valenzuela Jr., is on the faculty of University of California at Los Angeles and director of UCLA's Center for the Study of Urban Poverty. Co-author Nik Theodore is the director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The NYT article recaps some of the major findings from this newly-released study, but as of today (1/22), the full study is not yet available on the Net. The following are excerpts from the study:

The first nationwide study on day laborers has found that such workers are a nationwide phenomenon, with 117,600 people gathering at more than 500 hiring sites to look for work on a typical day.
The survey found that three-fourths of day laborers were illegal immigrants and that more than half said employers had cheated them on wages in the previous two months.
The study, based on interviews with 2,660 workers at 264 hiring sites in 20 states and the District of Columbia, found that day laborers earned a median of $10 an hour and $700 month. The study said that only a small number earned more than $15,000 a year.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Forty-nine percent of those interviewed said that in the previous two months an employer had not paid them for one or more days' work. Forty-four percent said some employers did not give them any breaks during the workday, while 28 percent said employers had insulted them.

Excerpts (continued)

Nearly three-fourths of the day laborers surveyed said they gathered at day labor sites five or more days a week, with the average laborer finding work three to three-and-a-half days a week. In good months, day laborers earn $1,400, the report found, and in bad months, especially winter months, $500.

Work safety and workers compensation standards appear to be routinely violated....where are OSHA and state regulators?

The study found that 73 percent said they were placed in hazardous working conditions, like digging ditches, working with chemicals, or on roofs or scaffolding. The report said that employers often put day laborers into dangerous jobs that regular workers were reluctant to do - often with minimal training and safety equipment.
One-fifth said that in the past year they had suffered injuries requiring medical attention, and 60 percent of that group said their injuries caused them to miss more than a week of work.
Among day laborers injured on the job during the previous year, 54 percent said they had not received the medical care they needed, mostly because they could not afford health care or the employer refused to cover them under the company's workers' compensation insurance.

Day labor centers are - per the co-authors - part of the solution:

The biggest hope for day laborers, the study said, are the 63 day labor centers that operate as hiring halls where workers and employers arrange to meet. Many set a minimum wage, often $10 an hour, that employers must pay the laborers.

We will shortly be looking at a recently published book on day labor centers.

Workers compensation rights of undocumented workers (2006)

Work Comp Central discusses a noteworthy new report issued by a task force of workers compensation lawyers:

State courts have not yet resolved tensions between federal immigration law and workers' compensation statutes, leaving in question exactly what benefits to which illegal aliens are entitled when they are injured on the job, according to an analysis by the American Association of State Compensation Insurance Funds (AASCIF).
The legal analysis, written by lawyers for the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation and the New York State Insurance Fund, outlines key state court decisions and how they interact with the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).

In a future post, I will be offering commentary on this analysis. AASCIF is the American Association of State Compensation Insurance Funds. Its members are workers compensation insurers, which at some time in the past were created in part with state government support to make sure that employers will have access to insurance. A few of the largest, in CA, NY, OH and WA, are state agencies staffed by civil servants.

The full report and a complete list of members with contact information can be found at AASCIF.