Sunday, September 17, 2006

"Violation of the American Spirit" -- Immigrants Denied Workers Comp

Most of the debate raging over immigration seems to focus on how we keep them out, and what we do with the ones who got in (e.g. throw them out or give them a chance to become citizens.) There's very little discussion of how we should be treating those who are here now, and what we should be doing about employers and insurance companies who have no problem with the fact that millions of undocumented immigrants are working in the US, but are suddenly indignant when they get injured and have the audacity to think they deserve workers compensation.

An excellent article by Liz Chandler, writing for the McClatchy newspapers, delves into these troubling issues.

A helicopter crash carrying workers back from chopping down trees cost Jose Hernandez his leg. But what came after Hernandex filed for workers compensation was worse.
Then, the insurance carrier, Florida Citrus, Business and Industries Fund, discovered that Hernandez was in America illegally, without work papers or permission from federal immigration officials. It halted all payments and left Hernandez to languish in a low-income Florida nursing home, unable to work to support his wife and four children in Mexico.

Thousands of illegal workers like Hernandez are hurt on the job every year in America, but don't get the compensation that's promised by law in every state.

Bosses often fire them, threaten them with deportation and commit an array of other misdeeds to avoid responsibility for workers' injuries. Some insurers refuse to pay their claims, citing reasons related to their illegal status.

As a result, injured workers often go without medical care or go to emergency rooms for treatment - and taxpayers get stuck with the bills.

"It's a violation of the American spirit," said Florida lawyer Gerry Rosenthal, who represents Hernandez. "Employers are hiring these people and pushing them hard to make a profit for the company, but when a worker gets hurt, they abandon him."
Chandler found that these issues are "rampant," according to interviews with illegal workers, employers, workers' comp lawyers, health care providers and workplace experts, and a review of lawsuits and workers' comp claims.

Employers may lack compassion, but they certainly don't lack chutzpa. They're saving money not just on the low wages paid to undocumented immigrant workers, but also on substandard safety conditions. Then, when workers get hurt, they're not only forgotten, but employers who are the "illegals," suddent prefess SHOCK that they're undocumented and argue that they shouldn't have to pay for medical treatment or workers compensation:
Employers in at least 20 states, arguing that their employees shouldn't receive injury benefits because they're illegal immigrants, have fought and lost in courts and review boards. Among those employees were a California laborer who hurt his back lifting sacks of coffee, an Arizona auto mechanic who was hit in the eye by flying debris, a Maryland carpenter who cut his hand on a saw, and a North Carolina construction worker who suffered a brain injury when he fell 30 feet onto a concrete floor.

Juan Palacios, a 27-year-old husband and father from Guatemala, was working on the roof of a Florida home in March when a coworker accidentally splashed hot tar on him. Palacios fell 12 feet and smashed through a glass table and onto a tile floor. He was hospitalized for a week.

During that time, he heard nothing from his boss at Sunrise Roofing.

"They don't care about me," Palacios said. "I feel bad because I can't work. ... That's why I'm here."

Sunrise confirmed that it had employed Palacios, but its insurance carrier, the Insurance Company of the Americas of Bradenton, Fla., has refused to pay. It won't discuss the denial but said in documents that "there is no employee/employer" relationship.

Palacios remains out of work. He's scarred and in need of skin grafts, he said. He relies on his roommates to feed and care for him, and he's received nothing from Sunrise.
But some states have managed to cheat workers out of the benefits they've earned:
Florida recently rejected hundreds of workers' comp claims because they didn't include Social Security numbers, a procedure the state Supreme Court halted last year because the requirement violated privacy laws.

A few states - Florida, Michigan and Kansas - allow employers to limit benefits or fine injured workers who use phony Social Security numbers.
According to insurance analyst (and blogger) Peter Rousmaniere.
It's a toxic cocktail. You have employers who have great incentive to cheat workers, and you have large numbers of illegal workers who will accept lower labor standards. It's causing our safety standards to erode - and that hurts legal workers, too.