When there is talk about workers’ compensation claims, there is an underestimation of the number of Latinos who fail to receive compensation, who fail to report their injuries or who receive nominal, if any, compensation for them.
Latinos who are undocumented fare far worse.
Seventy-nine percent of the nation’s undocumented immigrants are Latino with 2.4 million (22 percent) residing in California alone. In California’s workforce, it’s estimated that about one in ten workers is undocumented.
In 2014, Latinos accounted for over half (59.4 percent) of injuries and over a third (37.8 percent) of deaths in California’s workplaces.
Last Wednesday, the California Applicants’ Attorneys Association, who has been serving California’s injured workers since 1966, hosted a forum titled “Latino Immigrants: Deaths, Denials and Discrimination, a Conversation” at the Citizen Hotel where labor leaders, lawyers and experts discussed how workers compensation claims may worsen under a Trump administration.
“We have been helping Mexican nationals in the United States vigorously for years and we have been very good allies with the states Applicant’s Attorneys Association. But, we are worried about what could happen in the next four years,” said Rodrigo Baez from the Department of Legal Affairs at the Mexican Consulate in Sacramento.
In California, Latinos are less likely to file workers compensation claims, yet have the highest rates of work-related injuries. They are less likely to seek medical attention, have less access to medical facilities, and face the highest percentage of retaliation at work.
The undocumented workforce suffers the most from the lowering of labor standards and fear losing their job or facing negative reaction from their employers when they are hurt on the job. As a result, experts believe it is a critical time to continue to concentrate on helping Latino and undocumented workers with workers compensation claims.
“We are at a crossroads. There is a lot of concern with raids and deportations among the undocumented workforce. And realistically, without this workforce, it would drive California’s economy to the ground,” said Kent Wong, Director of the UCLA Labor Center. “These communities are at their most vulnerable and we need to be there to defend their rights.”
The place where workers compensation claims virtually go unreported is in California’s agricultural fields. Arturo Rodríguez, the Director of the United Farm Workers has been on the ground fighting for farm workers since the late civil rights and labor movement leader César Chávez passed away.
For over 79 years, farm workers, he said, have been excluded from basic labor protections that have resulted in unwarranted deaths. He pointed to the death of Isabel Vázquez Jiménez who made headlines when she passed away from heat exhaustion while picking grapes at a vineyard in Lodi, California.
“She was 17-years-old, petite and weighed 100 pounds but was carrying barrels of grapes that weighed 25 pounds. By late afternoon, when temperatures reached 108 degrees, she collapsed and the foreman in charge did not take her to the hospital. She passed away hours later,” said Rodríguez.
Vazquez’s uncle, Dorotheo Jiménez decided his niece’s death would not be in vain and along with the help and support from the UFW, participated in a march from Lodi to Sacramento to bring awareness of the extreme working conditions of farm workers in the Central San Joaquin Valley.
“Dorotheo helped push for better legislation to help prevent future deaths of farm workers. Because he is undocumented, he was black-balled and he cannot work anywhere in Lodi or the surrounding area because of his commitment to prevent senseless deaths of farm workers. They continue to be excluded from sensible labor protections,” said Rodríguez.
Latinos and other immigrant workers experience a higher rate of injuries in California because of their type of employment. While a large portion are farm workers, most move out of farm work to take jobs in packing sheds, food processing plants or as truck drivers.
“These jobs are not easy. They are the toughest kind of jobs that are out there and they are very dangerous. Sometimes, people who work in these industries are usually hired by a person who shares the same ethnic background and that can cause more harm, than good,” said Barry Broad, an attorney and legislative advocate for the California Teamsters Public Affairs Council in Sacramento.
Immigrant women are also susceptible to dangerous working conditions because of the type of industries they are more heavily concentrated in: hotel maids, restaurant cooks, waitresses and farm workers. Undocumented immigrant women who work in these industries and are hurt on the job, rarely report their injuries for fear of losing their employment.
“You have women who are moving 100 pound beds and having to scrub hotel bathrooms in awkward positions and they hurt their back, their knees and their arms. Employers, sometimes, don’t stop to think about what they need to perform to ensure their safety,” said Broad.
What makes workers compensation claims less reported among undocumented immigrants is the way their immigration status is used as a weapon of intimidation across all job sectors. Despite the passage of strong labor laws, they are rarely enforced.
“It is imperative that workers know their rights and feel comfortable reaching out to an organization that can help guide them in the right direction if they experience an injury at work,” said Angelica Salas, CHIRLA Executive Director.
Assemblymember Lorena González-Fletcher, D-San Diego has presented a bill to the California legislature that will bring worker’s compensation coverage for day laborers who are injured on the job by effectively eliminating the exclusion of workers who are employed or contracted to be employed for less than 52 hours.
The bill, AB 206 is expected to lead the creation of a new workplace protection for day laborers by making them eligible to receive workers compensation.
According to a report published by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) titled “Day Labor in the Golden State” and the National Day Labor Survey, the top three jobs performed by day laborers included: construction (92 percent) moving/hauling (86 percent) and painting (84 percent).
There are approximately 40,000 day laborers in California that are either looking for day labor jobs or are employed as day laborers on a daily basis. Millions of other workers in the state are eligible to receive workers’ compensation regardless of the number of hours they work at a given worksite.
According to González-Fletcher, an overwhelming majority of day laborer jobs meet the $100 requirement since the average day laborer is paid close to $20 an hour. However, the average day laborer cannot meet the 52-hour/same employer requirement since they only secure an average of 3-days per week.
The 52-hour requirement is detrimental to day laborers in the state because they are usually hired to work for short-terms jobs, which may only last a couple of days at the most. Assembly Bill 206 intends to provide day laborers with a new opportunity to seek workers’ compensation for any injuries that may have occurred while on the job.
“I think its sensible and the right thing to do to bring forward a bill that addresses a discrepancy and outdated provision in our workers’ compensation system. This bill will help all those who may not work for a company, but still work full-time at different sites and at different jobs and are still susceptible of getting hurt on the job,” said González.
In lieu of the Trump administration and its pending policies, experts in workers’ compensation believe immigrants and especially undocumented immigrants in the workforce will be the most vulnerable and their conditions might worsen.
They believe it is important to ensure workplace and labor protections are strong and in place and that all groups work together to ensure the rights of these groups are preserved.
“I do believe that home raids and work raids will increase. There will be more coercion and the threatening of immigrants. We cannot allow this to happen,” said Thomas Saenz, President of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).
In California, it will be imperative that lawmakers implement good and progressive laws that continue to strengthen the rights and protections of all its citizens and in particular groups that are being targeted by President Trump such as Latinos, immigrants and the undocumented.
“I am not worried about ‘Hurricane Trump’s’ destruction, but the lasting collateral damage that can result from his destruction. We cannot allow him to continue intimidating the undocumented community and Latino workers. California, as a state, should continue to resist his policies,” said Saenz.
This year, lawyers will grapple with the idea of considering undocumented workers as a ‘protected class’ during the Trump era since they are a clear target of many of his administrations executive orders and policies. Whether it will come to fruition is still unknown.
“Undocumented immigrants contribute more than $1 billion to the U.S. economy. They deserve, have worked, and given their blood, sweat and tears to work in this economy and should they be defended vigorously in court and elsewhere? I think so,” said Maria Elena Durazo, Unite Here Vice President.