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.”