Monday, March 21, 2005

Immigrant Workers: Chew 'em Up, Spit 'em Out & Kill 'em, But Don't Pay Their Comp!

On January 28, 2003, two brothers from Veracruz, Mexico, Moises and Rigoberto Xaca, age 15 and 17 were crushed to death in an 8 foot deep trench in Blythewood, South Carolina. The brothers had travelled from Veracruz, where their family picked coffee beans and lived in a one-room house with no running water. They saw the larger houses with running water that their neigbors with family members in the United States were able to build. In the ten months before they died, the boys sent home $4,372, nearly three years of pay for picking coffee beans in Veracruz.

The Columbia South Carolina State is running a series looking back at the boys' death and the aftermath:

In a few months, the doors of Richland 2’s new $50 million Blythewood High School will open to thousands of teenagers in the county’s fast-growing Northeast. The students will study within sturdy red bricks.

In January 2003, however, the property was little more than a patch of sandy soil.

Burriss Electrical Co. was one of six contractors at the site. The company, founded in 1991 by Tommy Burriss, had won a $3 million contract to install electricity for the school. Burriss needed workers to dig trenches for electrical and telecommunications lines.

On Monday, Jan. 27, Moises, Rigoberto, their cousin and the hometown friend showed up at the construction site. Burriss Electrical hired them and 18 others.

Burriss officials said everyone in the group held what appeared to be valid Social Security cards and “green cards,” giving them permission to work in the United States. The brothers’ cards listed their ages at 22 instead of 16 and 15.

The hometown friend said a Burriss supervisor gave them employment papers to fill out and told them to return to work the next day.

That night, the brothers took their applications to a friend who speaks English. While filling out the papers, the group talked about butchering a hog to barbecue for Rigoberto’s 16th birthday on Feb. 6.

For their first day working on the job, the boys arrived around 7 a.m. wearing jeans, T-shirts and camouflage jackets.

They worked inside an 8-foot- deep trench with their friends. An excavator dug into the earth. The hometown friend, Moises, Rigoberto and the others followed in its path to lay the electrical conduit.

Eighty minutes into the workday, the friend realized the trench’s sandy walls were crumbling. He turned and yelled for Moises and Rigoberto to run.

The friend escaped.

But his words came too late for the brothers.

Sand and chunks of compacted dirt buried them.

Fellow workers scrambled to dig out the boys, but the teens most likely were killed immediately. They were not wearing helmets, and the soil’s weight crushed their skulls, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said.
In March 2003, OSHA fined Burriss Electrical $42,075 for six safety violations at the site, including $29,000 for a willful violation because Burriss had been cited for the same trenching violation in 2000.

But Burriss is figting the citation, "out of principle," according to Burriss lawyer Chuck Thompson.

“It was a tragic accident,” Thompson said. “It was nothing anybody did willfully.”

According to OSHA, a willful citation does not mean that someone intended to kill a worker, but that there was "intentional disregard or plain indifference to the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Act."

And to add insult to injury, the State of South Carolina is fighting paying the full workers compensation amount:

By state law, the beneficiaries of a worker killed on the job are entitled to money. The amount is based on a formula, also set by state law, which essentially gives heirs up to 500 weeks of the deceased’s wages. There is a cap on the amount that can be awarded.

However, a section of the S.C. workers’ compensation code says payments to foreign workers’ dependents can be limited to half of what the family of a Canadian or a U.S. worker would receive.
(There is a similar law in Florida)

The workers comp situation for undocumented immigrants gets even worse -- the subject of a second article in the State. It seems that South Carolina employers are only too happy to accidentally overlook the fact that many of the workers they hire are undocumented -- until they get hurt. Then they're suddent shocked, SHOCKED, that illegal workers are within their midst, and how dare they try to cheat honest American taxpayers by claiming workers compensation.

Cinthia Duenaz used a fake Social Security card and work permit to get a job slicing skins and bones from chicken breasts at a Gold Kist plant in Sumter.

Her first name on her job application — Cinthia — was spelled differently from the “Cynthia” on her work permit.

Gold Kist either did not notice or did not care that Cinthia was an illegal immigrant.

The company, however, did care about Duenaz’s legal status when she fell off a stool at work and needed medical treatment. Gold Kist tried, unsuccessfully, to refuse paying for her treatment.

Duenaz isn’t alone.

Antonio, a 19-year-old illegal worker who lost his leg in an accident two years ago, also ran into the same problem when it came time to pay his hospital bills.

Attorneys who represent illegal aliens in workers’ compensation cases say insurance companies often try to deny payments.

Duenaz hired an attorney to file a workers’ compensation claim on her behalf. Gold Kist denied the claim, saying Duenaz was not covered because she was an illegal worker.

Although the courts have upheld the immigrant workers' right to collect compensation,

In January, two state representatives filed bills that would eliminate workers’ compensation claims for illegal aliens who obtain jobs through fraud, such as presenting fake ID cards and Social Security numbers.


For now, the bills have stalled. However, Rep. Bill Leach, R-Greenville, and Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee, the bills’ sponsors, have said they will continue to push for the change.

When Sandifer first spoke about the bills during a House subcommittee meeting, he explained his reasoning.

"I don’t know how you could go home and tell your constituents how you allowed illegal aliens who cheated to claim workers’ comp,” Sandifer said. “I know I couldn’t."

Later, Sandifer said paying workers’ compensation benefits to illegal immigrants only encourages them to come to South Carolina for work. Jobs belong in the hands of U.S. citizens and those who have gone through proper legal channels, he said.

It’s an opinion supported by many voters in a state with the nation’s fourth-highest unemployment figures.
This is in a state where Hispanic workers make up 3 percent of the population, but account for about 20 percent of workplace deaths and injuries.

Eduardo and Maria Xaca, the parents of Moises and Rigoberto still have not received any workers compensation payments. Even if they do receive the full amount, I somehow doubt that they'll think they've beaten the system.

“All they did was go to lose their lives,” Eduardo, 42, said before giving into his tears. “My little ones. My little children.”

The parents break down into hard sobs when they talk about “little Moises” and “little Rigoberto.”

“They always thought of their mother and father, brothers and sisters,” Maria said. “My little children were very responsible. They were always loving. They were always hard working.”

The family added more rooms to their house, but improvements stopped when the boys died. There is no extra money to finish, Eduardo said.

Meanwhile, young men in their town continue to pour into the United States, sending home money so the Xacas’ neighbors can have bigger, more comfortable homes and can buy cars.

Eduardo and Maria know Moises and Rigoberto’s story won’t stop the migration. The draw of money is too powerful.

So, they advise the young men to rely on faith. That means praying in church and crossing the border with Virgin Mary statues and rosaries in their pockets.

“I tell them to pray to God that nothing happens to them,” Maria said. “What happened to us I do not wish on anyone because losing a child is like losing half of your life.”


2 workers killed in crane

Saturday, March 19, 2005

IRVING, TX – Two construction workers building a parking garage in Las Colinas died Saturday morning when a crane boom collapsed, dropping debris that crushed them.

One witness said the crane appeared out of balance before the accident.

The boom, which reached high above the four-story garage, buckled about 9:20 a.m. as it hoisted 30-foot steel beams for the structure's skeleton.

Angel Roldan, 33, of Dallas and Juan Roldan, 26, of Mesquite died in the accident. The men, who were cousins, were taking a break at ground level when three beams crashed to the ground in the 300 block of East Las Colinas Boulevard, police said.

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