Edgar Velázquez: Maimed at work, then deported

The Providence Journal featured a troubling story this past Sunday, which was just brought to our attention. For those of us who work in workers comp, the terrible story of Edgar Velázquez: Maimed at work, then deported* is one that is played out all too frequently in the nation’s workplaces.
Edgar Velázquez is an undocumented Mexican worker who crossed the border after paying a coyote $1800. He found his way to Rhode Island to join family. According the this story, William J. Gorman Jr., owner of Billy G’s Tree Care, hired Velázquez despite knowing that he was an “illegal immigrant,” paying him an hourly rate under the table. Velázquez says that he was not provided any protective equipment to handle the chain saws that he used on his job, yet here’s what OSHA recommends for chainsaw safety: head protection, face/eye protection, hearing protection, leg protection, foot protection, hand protection.
Had Velázquez been wearing head or face protection, perhaps the injury he sustained when the chainsaw bounced off a fence and sliced through his face might have been prevented or mitigated. The surgeon who performed emergency reconstructive surgery on Velázquez, called the injury “devastating.”
Since the injury, Gorman has flatly denied that he employed Velázquez when family and treating physicians tried to find out about insurance. Gorman also denied any knowledge of Velázquez when contacted by the reporter who wrote this story.
When Velázquez showed up at the hearing that was scheduled to determine his eligibility for workers comp to cover his medical care and wage replacement, immigration agents were waiting for him. He was arrested and within a few days, driven over the Mexican border and dropped off. The story states that his former employer was on hand for the hearing, and approached Velázquez’ attorney Maureen Gemma, saying, “You’ll never guess what happened … I just saw your client walking up to the courthouse and Immigration snatched him up. … I think it was Immigration. It had to be.” Gemma said Gorman was obviously amused.
Perhaps Mr. Gorman is less amused now that this story is coming to light.
According to RI law and the law in most states, worker immigration status is not a bar to workers compensation benefits. But Billy G’s Tree Care isn’t insured for workers compensation, according to state records, and never has been. Mr. Gorman’s attorney thinks that his client may not be required to carry workers compensation. We are not so sure about that, but we do think it’s a good idea that Mr. Gorman has an attorney. If the facts are correct, he is violating a host of other federal and state employment laws and avoiding payroll taxes. Mr. Gorman’s attorney thinks that the relationship between Velázquez and Gorman was not one of employee and employer, but independent contractor and sole proprietor. We are not so sure about that, either. Mr. Gorman, on the other hand, apparently disagrees with this assessment since he has denied any relationship with Velázquez whatsoever.
This is a fairly clear example of the exploitation that immigrant workers face at the hands of unscrupulous employers. They are hired with a nod and a wink and paid under the table. Safety precautions are ignored and labor laws are violated. Statutory benefits are denied. This type of exploitation is no small problem – many think it as nothing short of modern day slavery.
The debate about immigration is so heated that even matters of basic human decency and common sense are often jettisoned. We’ve heard the argument “…but he was illegal” ad nauseum. Whether worker status is legal or illegal is a separate issue entirely. Employers should not be allowed to exploit and abuse employees, period. This matter should be of concern to all, if not on the grounds of morality, then just good business sense. Velázquez is the first and most obvious victim of injustice here, but not the last. By avoiding taxes, benefits, and insurance, unscrupulous employers have an unfair competitive edge over honest employers who do the right thing. Workers have no records, no benefits, and no protection. And when workers are injured or killed on the job, somebody else pays the bills. The rest of us bear the financial burden that exploiting employers shirk.
Because his situation has come to light, many people are advocating for Velázquez and trying to see that he gets justice. For every story that gets this attention, there are untold more that will never receive a public airing. There is quite a lot of passion around the issue of “illegal immigrants,” but far too little passion around the issue of “illegal employers.”
Thanks to Karen Lee Ziner for her good reporting on this story and to Cathleen Caron of the Global Worker Justice Alliance for alerting us about the article.
* If you have trouble accessing the article, try this link from MIRA.