Immigrant workers do some of the most dangerous jobs in this country, and get hurt and killed most often.  Now Howard Berkes at NPR and Mike Grabell at Pro-Publica have broadcast a report on immigrant workers who are hurt on the job being denied workers compensation and deported from the country for felony workers comp fraud because they used false Social Security numbers.    Read and/or listen to this article. It’s extremely troubling.

Berkes and Grabell note that most states permit undocumented workers to receive workers comp — in theory. But there’s a catch:

In 2003, Florida’s lawmakers added a catch, making it a crime to file a workers’ comp claim using false identification. Since then, insurers have avoided paying for injured immigrant workers’ lost wages and medical care by repeatedly turning them in to the state.

To be clear, the injuries were real, the need for workers comp was real — these were not workers going skiing while collecting workers comp. They had simply used false Social Security numbers when applying for work. Indeed, “In recent interviews, however, representatives from the state fraud unit and insurance industry couldn’t identify a single case where immigrants had worked with doctors and lawyers to defraud workers’ comp.”

Employers  are more than happy to hire undocumented workers and ask no questions about their Social Security numbers — until they get hurt. And employers are shocked, SHOCKED to find that the injured employee is using a false Social Security number.

We’ve already seen a story about a worker who was arrested by ICE at a workers comp meeting after suffering a serious injury after falling off a ladder and broke his femur (he was later released) and legislators in Ohio unsuccessfully tried to pass a bill that would have prohibited undocumented workers from receiving workers comp payments. The National Employment Law Project reports that “Over the past several years, legislation has been introduced in several states, including Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Montana, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Virginia, to deny workers’ compensation to unauthorized workers.”

The ability of employers to undermine the safety and health of any worker — even undocumented workers — undermines the protections for all workers.

Of course, not everyone agrees that this behavior is a travesty of justice, as seen in a Twitter conversation with former Labor Department Deputy Secretary Seth Harris and a few unhappy tweeters with similar messages after Harris posted the NPR/Pro-Publica story:

And employers are getting more creative about avoiding compensation for their injured employees. Grabell reports that:

In the past few years, employers and insurers have begun using a new tactic, arguing that they should only be responsible for paying lost wages based on what the immigrant would have made in his or her home country. In Nebraska, for example, meatpacker Cargill tried to cut off benefits to Odilon Visoso, who was injured when a 200-pound piece of beef fell on his head, saying it was too difficult to determine what he could earn in Chilpancingo, Mexico, a crime-ridden city controlled by drug cartels near his rural, mountainous village. Nebraska’s Supreme Court told the company to use Nebraska wages.

If only American employers and their attorneys would put that ingenuity to work making worker conditions better for employees instead of undermining their rights and their protections.

A few observations:

  • Exempting undocumented workers from workers comp decreases the incentive for employers to make the workplace safe. As former OSHA director David Michaels says in the story “If employers know that workers are too afraid to apply for workers’ compensation, what’s the incentive to work safely?”
  • The ability of employers to undermine the safety and health of any worker — even undocumented workers — undermines the protections for all workers.  Why would an unscrupulous employer bother to invest in protecting his workers if he can just hire — or threaten to hire — a bunch of undocumented workers who are afraid to file an OSHA complaint or a workers comp claim?  As Michaels said “If you allow a class of workers who can be injured without any repercussions against the employer, there’s no reason for the employer to keep all workers safe. So that employer is likely to hire more undocumented workers and invest little or nothing in safety. The result, even more workers will be injured.”
  • OSHA is “status blind” — the agency enforces the law against employers who endanger their workers regardless of whether the workers are documented or undocumented.  This makes sense: again, allowing one class of workers to be abused undermines protections for all workers.
  • Who knows what’s coming down the line in this administration. As the authors note: “What’s quietly been happening to workers in Florida, unnoticed even by immigrant advocates, could be a harbinger of the future as immigration enforcement expands under President Trump.”


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