Injured immigrant workers denied workers compensation

September 18th, 2006 by Julie Ferguson

It’s one of our nation’s dirty little secrets: immigrant workers are doing some of the nation’s most dangerous jobs, are being injured and dying disproportionately in those jobs, and denied benefits when injuries and deaths occur. In a political climate where where the rhetoric and emotions are high and seemingly getting higher by the day, a “blame the victim” mentality is pervasive.
Peter Rousmaniere of Working Immigrants point us to an important expose by Liz Chandler of McClatchy Newspapers on the widespread practice of denying workers compensation to illegal immigrant workers who suffer work-related injuries. It’s a compelling read about how undocumented workers are now performing some of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S., and are frequently tossed aside by unscrupulous employers when injuries occur.

“From field hands to garment workers to poultry processors to construction crews, injuries abound in industries that rely on an estimated 7 million undocumented workers, often to do dirty and dangerous jobs. Yet those who are undocumented are frequently cheated out of benefits that American workers have taken for granted for nearly a century, a McClatchy Newspapers investigation has found.

Federal labor officials haven’t studied whether undocumented workers are wrongfully being denied compensation. But the exploitation is rampant, according to interviews with scores of illegal workers, employers, workers’ comp lawyers, health care providers and workplace experts, and a review of lawsuits and workers’ comp claims.

In one national study, university researchers surveyed 2,660 day laborers, most of them working illegally. One in five said he’d suffered a work injury. Among those who were hurt in the last year, 54 percent said they didn’t receive the medical care they needed, and only 6 percent got workers’ comp benefits.”

The courts have traditionally upheld worker rights in these matters and there are many good reasons beyond the mere moral imperative to do so. Regardless of immigration status, the employer enjoyed the benefits of the workers’ labor, and has the commensurate responsibility to provide benefits for a worker injured on the job. If an employer has no financial responsibility for work injuries for one class of workers, that creates a powerful perverse incentive for unscrupulous employers to hire that class of worker for the riskiest jobs. Such unconscionable practises are also rewarded these employers with a financial advantage over honest competitors.
Failure to provide benefits also contributes to an erosion of exclusive remedy, the quid pro quo lynch pin upon which the very workers compensation system is founded: in exchange for providing medical care and temporary wage replacement to injured workers, employers are protected from potentially ruinous lawsuits.
Immigrant injuries and fatalities bucking the national trend
In recent years, while the total frequency of workplace injuries and fatalities has been declining across the nation, the numbers of deaths and injuries for immigrant and hispanic/latino workers have been climbing – as depicted in the graphic accompanying Chandler’s article.

“Workplace safety programs also are failing these workers, as the number of inspections and the staffers to do them has declined. The nation’s 2,300 inspectors check 1 percent of 7 million employers each year, and critics say fines are so low that risky operators consider them a cost of doing business.”

There’s much more in the article and the accompanying multi-media – we encourage you to read it for yourself. We applaud Chandler’s attention to this important matter – it’s one of the best treatments of the topic we’ve seen since the Palm Beach Post’s 2003 series entitled Modern Day Slavery. For more on this topic, see these posts:
Jobs that lure Mexican workers to the U.S. are killing them
Hispanic Fatalities on the job: the Tip of the Iceberg
S. Carolina to bar workers comp for undocumented immigrants?
Janitors: The big squeeze
Wyoming court to examine compensability for illegal immigrants
California court upholds workers comp for undocumented workers
Illegal Immigrants: Working In the Twilight Zone
Day Labor: Undocumented, Unprotected, Unconscionable
Immigration Policy: Cracking Down or Cracking Up?