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June 26, 2014

Food manufacturing workers in NYC

Feeding New York” is a report issued on June 24 by Brandworkers, a membership organization of workers in the local food production industry in New York City. The report focuses on the New York City food manufacturing industry. Researchers surveyed and interviewed workers and drew upon other government survey data.

With some $5 billion in gross annual sales, New York City’s food manufacturing industry employs 14,000 workers. With 900 employers, the average workforce is 16. According to a 2007 study by the Fiscal Policy Institute, 70% of workers in the sector are immigrants, 72% are people of color, and 64% have less than a high school diploma.

Latinos make up 32%; Asians 20%, African Americans 17% and whites 27% of all food manufacturing workers.13 Among frontline workers, Latinos account for 53% of workers, Asians 16%, African Americans 16% and whites 12%.14 Women comprise 38% of the industry’s workers and are a growing segment of the industry.15 According to Census data, frontline workers make on average $12.06 per hour and work an average of 37.4 hours per week.

What the study’s survey found:

Work Safety lapses: 42% have suffered an injury at work. This includes: 15.1% have slipped/fallen; 14.2% have been cut; 11.3% have headaches; 10.4% have a back injury; 7.5% have been hit by equipment; 43.5% reported injury but did not get free
medical care from employer; 9.7% have come into contact with toxic chemicals; 4.9% aren’t sure; More than 1 in 10 report that their employer required them to do something that put their safety at risk

Little training: 44.1% did not receive any [job] training; 72.1% did not receive any training from employer; 56.7% never received training on workplace health and safety.

Limited health insurance: 52.9% don’t have health insurance; 4.7% get their health insurance through their employer; 54.9% have gone to work sick in the past year;
30.7% don’t get any paid sick days; 25.7% aren’t sure if they do or not.

Wages: Survey respondents on average earned $10.48 an hour. On average, undocumented workers made $2 less per hour than workers with legal status.

June 21, 2014

Undocumented workers ensnared by workers comp

Law enforcement agencies are booby-trapping workers’ comp benefits for undocumented workers. Below is my column with reference to a news article. Both were published on June 16 by WorkCompCentral.

Ensnared by workers’ comp

We may look back to this time as a period when one out of every ten injured worker faced the risk of criminal prosecution and deportation for the act of submitting a legitimate workers’ compensation claim.

Michael Whiteley of WorkCompCentral [see at end for access] reports that law enforcement agencies in at least two states recently adopted strategies to arrest undocumented workers on the grounds that in using an invalid social security number in their claims submission they defrauded the insurer.

First report of injury forms include a field for a social security number. The number links the claimant to personnel and payroll data on the employer’s books. Normal payroll deductions are taken for the number to hold for future social security and Medicare benefits, to which the claimant may never be able to enjoy. By definition, the social security number on an undocumented worker’s claims record is invalid.

The eight million undocumented workers comprise about 6% of the total civilian workforce. By studying estimates of undocumented worker penetration by occupations ranked by injury risk, one can reasonably project that undocumented workers sustain one out of every ten work injuries. This high volume is invisible to almost everyone except for adjusters, case managers, lawyers and others who work directly with injured workers and have learned their work and life patterns. The rate varies greatly, from maybe 2% in West Virginia, a low foreign-born population state, to over half within the fruit and vegetable producing counties of southern California.

At my request, the Workers' Injury Law & Advocacy Group asked if its members were aware of intimidation, claim denials or arrests that arose from the use of other persons’ social security numbers. Within a few hours my email inbox lit up like a Christmas tree.

A Florida attorney with whom I had spoken earlier sent adjuster notes obtained through discovery for a June, 2012 injury at a dairy. The adjuster wrote on June 27, 2012, “claimant, three children, obtained SSN from his brother when his brother returned to Mexico. Married, 9th grade educ in Mexico.” In March, 2013, the adjuster wrote: “SIU check found that SSN was issued in Porto Rico some time between 1936 and 1950.”

In March, 2013, the adjuster wrote that the case had been referred to a West Palm Beach, Florida, investigator. On April 4 the notes state that the claimant was arrested for using a false number to gain employment and false filing of workers compensation claim. The legal basis for the arrest was not given but was most likely insurance fraud statute, 440.105 (4)(b), currently being challenged in superior courts (Florida v Brock].

This worker’s guileless comments about the passed down number shows how accustomed undocumented workers, their employers and workers’ compensation claims payers are to tacitly accommodating illegal work status while in processing workers’ compensation benefits. In all but a few jurisdictions, undocumented workers can legally obtain benefits, a right assured by state law and state superior courts.

What’s changed, it appears, is the climate. Perhaps tacitly going along is viewed by some as a form of amnesty. Maybe workers’ compensation fraud teams are hungrier for results and see identity theft as easier to document than traditional fraud such as faking disability.

Step back to consider the implications on the industry’s commitment, as phrased by the National Council on Compensation Insurance, to “help foster a healthy workers compensation system.”

Some applicant attorneys allege that defense lawyers sometime ensnare their undocumented clients by teasing out during depositions information they then package over to law enforcement. Sometimes, they tell me, there is a threat. “Retaliation and threats of retaliation have created a culture of fear,” The National Employment Law Project asserts, citing its recent survey that illegal immigrant workers are hesitant to file workers’ compensation claims or assert other rights out of fear of retaliation.

Workers’ compensation benefits and work safety join in a circular flow of cause and correction. Len Welch, Chief of Workplace Safety for California’s largest workers’ compensation insurer, the State Compensation Insurance Fund, says that immigration reform could be the most important work safety advance in the next five to 10 years. “When you have undocumented workers, the odds of accidents go way up. It’s the tip of the iceberg of the massive underground economy in the state,” he said.

James Baldwin, debating William Buckley at Cambridge University in 1965, described the legacy of slavery as the tragedy of “when one has absolute power over another person.” To the undocumented worker, her or his employer holds nearly absolute power over safety. A work injury could result in jail time and deportation. Neither workers’ compensation system and worksite safety are healthy when one tenth of injured workers can are in a constant state of vulnerability.

Mike Whiteley’s article is behind a paywall. If you are not a subscriber, you can purchase access to the article. https://ww3.workcompcentral.com/news/story/id/071f36056523bac7ae4e8e310a166913m