Monday, January 09, 2006

Workers Comp: Third World Work Safety System Right Here In The US?

Yes, tonight we're writing about something other than the Sago mine tragedy. Not that there's not lots more to say about it; it's just that life goes on.

Sometimes life doesn't go on very well -- particularly if you're an undocumented worker who gets hurt on the job. Massachusetts workers' compensation consultant Peter Rousmaniere had an column last week in the Boston Globe warning that if action isn't taken, Massachusetts (as well as many other states) will soon have a third-world work safety system hiding in plain sight. And the problem will become worse if undocumented status is criminalized.
Massachusetts as elsewhere, employers are outsourcing cleanup, construction, and other risky work to small firms. An increasing share of the bottom quarter of the workforce is undocumented. Most of those workers are undereducated; many do not speak English; all fear deportation.

State regulators and insurers have not been up to the task of stemming abuses at the small level.

As a result, the state is replete with employers who do not purchase workers' compensation insurance or who steer their workers from workers' compensation benefits.

This problem is greater than experts in work safety and workers' compensation realize.

Roughly one fifth of all in-state jobs designed for less than a high school degree are filled by undocumented workers. In some sectors this percentage is over 50 percent. Sometimes the entire workforce is off the books. Sometimes the employer creates a two-tiered personnel system: Some are paid in cash.

Workers' compensation is an insider's club, only for workers with good social and legal networks. To the injured undocumented worker the system is a gated community.

An injured undocumented worker is more likely to be treated by a doctor who does not know the workers' compensation system and safety rules. As a result, many work injuries are not admitted into the workers' compensation system of medical and lost wage benefits.
Rousmaniere recommends a gubernatorial taskforce, a database of employers' workers comp coverage, training of community activists to detect suspicious employers and increased penalties for employers who violate workers comp coverage laws.

Good ideas for Massachusetts and other states. And Rousmaniere remains an optimist; more optimistic than I:
Regardless of our individual views about the merits of so many such workers in the United States, we can all concur that if an undocumented worker sustains an injury while performing a real job for an employer, she or he should obtain the protections of the workers' compensation system.
Let's hope we can indeed all agree.