Friday, November 26, 2004

Kill Workers = Small Fine; No Workers Comp = Go To Jail

I often get quite angry when obvious employer neglect causes the death of workers -- especially immigrant workers who may not know about safe working conditions or their rights, and may be too intimidated to confront their employers even if they have the knowledge. And then when it turns out that the employer hadn't even purchased workers compensation insurance....

So news like this warms my heart:

The owner of a Boca Raton construction company involved in a Hobe Sound building collapse that killed two workers was charged Tuesday with a single felony for failing to carry workers' compensation insurance for his employees.

Richard J. Meccariello Jr., 39, of Delray Beach was being held Tuesday in the Palm Beach County Jail on $25,000 bond. His arrest comes three months after the state fined two of his companies $2.4 million in civil penalties for not carrying the coverage.

State and federal investigations were launched after the July 22 collapse of a three-story condominium, which also injured five other of Meccariello's employees. Martin County buildings officials have found in their preliminary review that concrete for the third floor was too heavy and being poured too fast.


Gregorio Ruiz Aviles, 31, and Lauro Marquez Hernandez, 23, both Mexican nationals were killed in the collapse. Both men were married. Marquez Hernandez had a 4-year-old daughter; Ruiz Aviles had two girls, aged 5 and 7.

Meccariello can serve up to five years in prison. (More here on the tragedy.)

The requirement that employers carry workers compensation insurance was part of the deal made early in the last century in return for workers giving up the ability to sue their employers. Federal OSHA is still investigating the case, but whatever they find, the OSHA penalty for killing two workers will be a small fraction of the fine for not carrying workers compensation insurance, even if the violation of worker protection standards is found to be willfull -- in other words, even if the employer knew that he was violating standards and sending workers into a situation that could kill them, it is seen by the law as far less serious than not taking out a workers comp insurance policy. (For example, a Knox County, Tennessee employer was fined only $8,000 this week for sending a worker to his death in a 15 foot deep trench.)

I think the penalty here is appropriate, but I would just like the OSHAct to be rewritten to allow these kind of penalties for willfull violations that kill workers, not just for failure carry workers comp insurance. It's also ironic that these workers were killed just as Bush's OSHA was holding its window-dressing "Hispanic Summit", a conference which was allegedly intended to address the high rates of workplace fatalities among Hispanic workers -- a "summit" where no mention was made of raising penalties to the point where employers would actually be deterred from cutting corners and putting workers lives at risk.