Footnote on a Fatality

June 12th, 2008 by

Yesterday we blogged the death of Lauro Ortega, who was crushed while excavating a building site in New York. We assumed that he was protected by workers comp, even as his lawyer pursued more lucrative remedies from the (recently indicted) employer, William Lattarulo. It appears that we were just a bit naive. Ortega was an illegal immigrant, working construction jobs on a cash-only basis. He labored long hours, six days a week, sending most of his earnings home to his family in Cuenca, Ecuador.
“He came to this country to work. He liked to do it. That was his love,” his brother is quoted as saying. Ortega lived in a tiny apartment by himself; he spoke to his wife and children every day. He had very little life outside of work, with Sundays reserved for church. He would have preferred to stay in Ecuador, but there was no work available. He came to this country for one simple reason: it’s where the jobs – and the money – are.
There will be readers who lack sympathy for Ortega. He was here illegally. He was paid under the table. He took his chances and reaped a harsh reward. At best, he is viewed with considerable ambiguity: he was here illegally, but to some degree our laws still protect him as a worker. His family will receive some compensation for his untimely death: either in the form of workers compensation (presumably paid out of the state fund) or tort liability stemming from his employer’s negligence. It will take some time, but eventually his family will receive financial support simply because Ortega died at work in America.
I am struck by the quiet desperation that brought Ortega to New York. I am impressed by his willingness to work hard, every day, and use his earnings to support a wife and two children back home. I am saddened by his sudden and very unnecessary death. And I am frustrated by the stalemate in Congress, which has been unable to construct a reasonable and just solution to what has become an intractable problem of enormous magnitude. There are over 12 million workers like Ortega, all of whom are here illegally and most of whom are working hard and doing jobs that need to be done.
Yes, they are illegal. And yes, we need their services. Two simple, contradictory facts. What, if anything, are we going to do about it?