Safety Risks for Undocumented Workers

January 4th, 2006 by

Our colleague Peter Rousmaniere has been traveling the country, researching the intersection of undocumented workers and the workers comp system. In an editorial appearing in today’s Boston Globe (free registration required), he explores one of the most compelling problems associated with undocumented workers, the dramatic erosion of long-standing safety standards. Undocumented workers tend to take on the least desirable and the most dangerous jobs. They lack basic education and training. And they are unlikely to benefit from conventional safety and post-injury management programs. Taken together, these factors place undocumented workers at higher risk for serious injury and fatalities. Rousmaniere asserts that the individual states have a vested interest – and a moral obligation – to tackle this problem head on.
Tough Jobs
Rousmaniere writes that in Massachusetts as elsewhere, employers are outsourcing cleanup, construction, and other risky work to small firms, which can operate outside of the usual safety nets with relative ease. By hiring undocumented workers, these companies have an intimidated workforce that is undereducated, unable to speak English and in constant fear of deportation.
While no one really knows how big the problem is, Rousmaniere estimates that one fifth of all in-state jobs designed for less than a high school degree are filled by undocumented workers. He believes that in some sectors this percentage is over 50 percent. In construction, there are entire crews of painters, roofers, framers and masons who are paid in cash and are thus “off the books.” The companies employing these undocumented workers are able to provide services at rates substantially lower than their properly insured competitors.
What Can Be Done?
Rousmaniere has a number of recommendations for the states dealing with large scale problems of undocumented workers. These include:
Launching a gubernatorial task force to explore the full extent of the problem (although some governors would probably rather pretend that the problem does not exist)
Creating a computer database of employers and their workers’ compensation coverage (why not require every employer to post a certificate of insurance listing the total number of employees?)
Engaging doctors to report suspicious cases
Training community activists on what to look for and how to report cases of abuse.
Perhaps most important, strengthening enforcement activities. This includes raising employer penalties for repeated safety violations and workers’ comp insurance fraud. (Until the enforcement effort is credible, the risks of exposure for non-compliant employers will remain minimal. For Florida’s take on enforcement, check out this article from the Insurance Journal.)
Rousmaniere frames the problem as one of worker safety. This is a productive way of looking at undocumented workers. While one can argue about whether these people should be working at all, there should be no argument about the need for safe working conditions. To be sure, some accountability falls to the people who are working illegally. But the brunt of accountability should lie with those who profit most from the sweat of these disenfranchised workers. Until employers are held accountable, the unsafe working conditions and the exploitation of the most vulnerable workers will continue to grow exponentially. This is a crisis, even if we are all acting as if it’s just business as usual.