Broken workers broken promises: many undocumented Latino immigrants injured on the job qualify for workers' compensation benefits, but employers often make them hard to access.
Ramirez, an undocumented immigrant from Chihuahua, Mexico, slammed into the side of a 1988 GMC truck. A bone broke in his lower back and blood oozed from his mouth, face and legs. The 50-year-old Ramirez, who asked that his real name not be used for this article, passed out as freezing rain fell on that cold November morning last year.
When Ramirez came to in Illinois Masonic Hospital, he learned that his boss, Rodrigo Ortega, co-owner of Best Tree Service in Chicago, had gone to the hospital and told the people attending to him that the accident occurred at Ramirez's home, not his workplace.
Ramirez went home to Rockford after spending several days in the hospital and undergoing surgery in which he had four aluminum rods inserted into his back.
His accident required additional therapy. But Ramirez says that when he tried to contact Ortega at home to tell him that the treatment would cost hundreds of dollars, Ortega neither came to the door nor answered his phone.
Ramirez had no therapy. Now, after he walks four blocks his feet begin to fall asleep and tremble.
Feeling that his boss was indifferent, Ramirez contacted a lawyer. But Elvira Reyes, co-owner of Best Tree Service, told the lawyer that Ramirez had never worked for the company. In fact, she said she did not know who Ramirez was, according to John Serkland, Ramirez's lawyer.
Serkland thinks his client has a reasonable chance of winning his workers' compensation claim. But Ramirez's prospects of actually receiving any money from Best Tree Service are dim.
Despite being legally required to have workers' compensation insurance, Best Tree Service only purchased that insurance on April 7, 2007, according to state records, more than four months after Ramirez's accident.
"It's like chasing a ghost," said Serkland, an attorney with Joseph Patrick Shea law firm in the Logan Square community.
Not purchasing insurance and denying workers' employment are only two examples of actions employers take to thwart undocumented Latino immigrants from receiving workers' compensation benefits. Companies also offer minimal payments in exchange for agreements not to take legal action and fire injured workers, according to some activists and undocumented immigrants who've been injured on the job.
"Employers are being unethical," said Peter Snitovsky, an orthopedic surgeon at Alex Orthopedics in the city's Lake View community on the North Side. "They are being greedy and unscrupulous in terms of [helping workers access and pay for] the health care they need, as well as the other benefits they should receive."
In addition, some doctors write "return-to-work" orders for undocumented workers shortly after gruesome injuries, other doctors said.
The result: many workers, already vulnerable to exploitation and more likely than others to work in dangerous industries, and they end up with shattered bodies and none of the benefits to which they are legally entitled.
And the consequences extend beyond the physical and the financial, according to Arturo Jauregui, principal of Jauregui & Associates in Chicago, who called the plight of undocumented workers "a nightmare."
"When workers are injured, they can never be made whole again; something very valuable has been lost of themselves," said Jauregui. "At the end of the day, when they do become injured, the system is not going to be there because of their immigration status."
The workers' compensation system is designed to provide compensation for accidental injuries or death suffered on the job in Illinois, according to the 2005 Illinois Workers' Compensation Act.
Under the act, injured workers can be eligible to receive two thirds of their average weekly wage, a lump-sum payment and medical care. In certain cases, the medical care could extend throughout the rest of a worker's life.
These protections are afforded to workers regardless of their immigration status.
But worker advocates and attorneys representing undocumented immigrants said companies take many actions to stop workers from getting those benefits.
Some companies fire workers after they become injured, said Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, a network of people of faith dedicated to workers' issues.
While working for Best Tree Service, Jorge Orozco was injured on May 29, 2006. Orozco said a chain saw hanging from his work belt was accidentally turned on and sliced open his right leg, cutting all the way to the bone. As blood gushed from his wound, co-workers took him to a hospital where more than a dozen stitches were needed to staunch the bleeding.
Orozco says Ortega paid him $400 per week for the first four or five months after his injury, while he was recovering. But then the checks stopped. Orozco said Ortega told him that if he wanted to continue earning money, he would need to work.
But when Orozco tried to return to work, he was told there was none. "But I know there was work from talking with the other workers, who were my friends," said Orozco, 33, an undocumented immigrant from Pachuca, Hidalgo, in Mexico, who asked that his real name be withheld from this story.
"What Rodrigo [Ortega] is doing is not right," Orozco said.
Ortega did not return calls from the Reporter.
Bobo said companies often tell workers the company will pay their initial medical bills rather than going through the workers' compensation system. "This ends up meaning [that] the workers don't get long-term coverage if they need it," Bobo said.
She added that some companies avoid full compensation by offering lump-stun payments to injured workers in exchange for signed agreements not to sue the companies for their injuries. "This happens all the time," said Bobo.
The surgeon Snitovsky said one of his former patients who was an undocumented immigrant had several fingers mangled by a cheese grater while working at a restaurant. The worker initially told Snitovsky he had hurt himself while changing the oil in his car. But after receiving bills for his medical treatment, the worker told Snitovsky how his injury actually occurred. The worker explained that his employer warned that filing a report of the injury could lead, ultimately, to his deportation, Snitovsky said.
This type of employer action happens frequently, according to Kenneth Lewis, president of Lewis, Davidson & Hetherington, a law firm in Chicago. Richard Shollenberger, an attorney at the firm, noted that none of his clients have received direct threats from employers, but many expressed fear of retaliation.
"This is a rather subtle thing," Shollenberger said, explaining that undocumented workers are often aware when an employer has fired other undocumented workers who filed workers' compensation claims. "An employer can get those threats across without saying the words."
Some workers' advocates say it's common for doctors referred by employers or their insurance companies to issue injured workers return-to-work orders. One Chicago doctor, who wished to remain anonymous and primarily serves Latino clients, said the most extreme examples include an injured worker with an exposed bone sticking out of his leg and another with leaking brain fluid.
And Serkland, the attorney, said he knows of cases where companies without workers' compensation insurance have received large judgments against them, declared bankruptcy and reopened under a different name.
The Chicago Reporter examined a list of more than 500 companies in construction, electrical and other industries that belonged to either the Builders Association or the Association of Subcontractors & Affiliates, both based in the Chicago area. Fifty-eight of these companies, or 12 percent, were not self-insured and did not have individual workers' compensation insurance policies.
In Illinois, companies can also purchase workers' compensation by participating in a group insurance pool. However, the Illinois Division of Insurance could not tell the Reporter whether any of those 58 companies participated in one of those pools.
The state has record of as many as 60,000 companies which either had individual workers' compensation insurance policies or were self-insured, according to data from the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission.
Serkland also said it's common for companies to assist workers in purchasing false social security numbers. Once the workers become injured, Serkland said, the companies threaten to contact immigration authorities to stop the workers from taking legal action.
"The Hispanic worker is exploited in so many ways," said Serkland, who handles hundreds of workers' compensation cases per year. "Everywhere they turn, they are getting the door shut in their face."
Few undocumented immigrants fight back because they fear retaliation by their employers or that they won't get hired again elsewhere, according to Nik Theodore, director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In a 2002 paper, Theodore noted that fewer than 30 percent of seriously injured immigrant workers filed workers' compensation claims.
A little more than half of those who filed a claim actually received compensation, according to Theodore.
The story was worse for undocumented workers.
Theodore said undocumented workers comprised 52 percent of all workers who said they suffered a serious injury but just 28 percent of those who filed a claim.
Theodore surveyed more than 1,600 workers, about half of whom were undocumented.
And undocumented workers are unlikely to protest against unfair treatment by employers, according to data from the Illinois Department of Human Rights.
Since 1992, the Illinois Human Rights Act has included citizenship status as a protected class, meaning that undocumented immigrants are protected from discrimination at the workplace regardless of citizenship status. The protection covers all aspects of employment, including hiring, retaliation and firing.
But remarkably few workers have availed themselves of that protection. From 1998 to 2005, just 204 workers filed claims of discrimination on the basis of citizenship status, compared with 9,026 claims on the basis of race and 7,729 claims on the basis of gender.
"There are many people who are afraid of talking, [but] when it's about justice for the people, you have to talk," said Jesus Navarro, an undocumented immigrant who was injured on the job.
Navarro speaks out and encourages other undocumented immigrants to do so, as well. Still, he fears being discovered by immigration authorities and asked the Reporter not to use his real name.
Once a vigorous worker who played basketball at Humboldt Park and enjoyed dancing, Navarro now labors to bathe and change his clothes. Whereas before he used to buy and eat whatever food he wanted, now, because of his limited finances, he cooks only one meal per day. He often draws on his friends' generosity to survive.
Despite all the losses from his accident, Navarro has discovered a surprising freedom.
"Now, I am stronger [than before] ... I don't have enough to eat. I don't have enough for rent, for survival. I am only breathing because people help me," said Navarro, who has spoken against company abuses at rallies organized by San Lucas Workers Center. "The people shouldn't be afraid.... It doesn't matter that they don't have papers, they have voices and shouldn't be afraid to talk."
In Illinois, many undocumented Latino immigrants work in dangerous industries in which they sustain serious injuries. Already vulnerable to exploitation, these workers face a fresh set of challenges after being hurt.
A Chicago Reporter investigation found:
* Undocumented Latino immigrants who become disabled on the job face many obstacles in getting the workers' compensation benefits to which they are legally entitled.
* Some of the barriers include employers who do not buy workers' compensation insurance, fire injured workers and offer payments to injured workers in exchange for not taking legal action.
* Despite being protected from workplace discrimination by the Illinois Human Rights Act, very few undocumented workers file discrimination charges.
For more information about the people and organizations we write about, go to www.chicagoreporter.com
Services underwhelming for undocumented
Chicago is considered by some to be a national model in terms of the range and cultural sensitivity of available resources for Latinos with disabilities.
Among the many Chicago-area agencies assisting Latinos with disabilities are the 16 governmental and nonprofit organizations that make up the Committee for the Integration of Latinos with Disabilities--known to some as the CILD. In regular communication with each other, the agencies produce materials in Spanish and often go to neighborhoods with large Latino populations to make informational presentations.
"Chicago is doing phenomenal work," said Kathy Martinez, executive director of the World Institute on Disability, an organization in Oakland, Calif. that promotes the civil rights and social inclusion of people with disabilities. Her organization co-sponsored a conference in 2004 with Access Living, a member of the CILD that promotes independent living, provides services and advocates for people with disabilities.
But help may be somewhat less than phenomenal for undocumented Latino immigrants, who are not eligible for assistance from six of the 16 CILD organizations.
Some groups conduct background checks with Social Security numbers. Officials with the agencies said that undocumented immigrants are also disconnected from services because they're unaware of the agencies or afraid to seek help.
Zully JF Alvarado, the founder and president of Causes for Change International, a volunteer organization helping to create self-sufficient communities across the globe, makes it clear that she is not very welcoming of cases dealing with undocumented immigrants. Alvarado's organization does not provide assistance to undocumented immigrants, but when they call she does offer them words of advice.
"I don't turn them away, but if you're here illegally, you have to want to change some things in your life. This would include becoming a citizen," said Alvarado, who advises clients and refers them to other services. "I guess you could say I do assist undocumented people. But my first question is to see what the situation is and how they can better themselves by getting legal status and proper services."
Anel Gonzalez, the bilingual technical assistance specialist for DBTAC: Great Lakes ADA & IT Center, said some undocumented immigrants have been afraid to file complaints of employment discrimination when they get injured on the job and become disabled, for fear of retaliation from their employers.
"This is fear that they created themselves, by assuming that that is going to happen and by the harassment by the employers," Gonzalez said. "The very sad part is that sometimes these cases could be very good to investigate, but because they are fearful, they never file a complaint."
The Great Lakes Center helps to eliminate those fears by educating their clients on their rights covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The center is one of 10 CILD resources that do not ask for citizenship status. But advocates said that doesn't completely erase the fear of deportation or stigma of being undocumented. "It is not often that people want to share their status," said Gonzalez, who rarely gets calls for service from undocumented Latinos who became disabled on the job.
"Those calls are not common," he said. "In general, we get about 650 calls per month. I would say seven to 10 for the year are undocumented cases who have been disabled on the job."
Rene David Luna, community and economic development team leader at Access Living, said more education and outreach is needed to inform undocumented immigrants of the services that are available to them.
"They are a hidden group. They believe themselves not to be eligible for many services, so they don't call organizations enough or get in contact with resources," Luna said. "All the barriers immigrants face in the first place and then having a disability on top of that ... they are totally left out."
Don't ask, don't tell
The following organizations that work with Latinos with disabilities do not ask for citizenship status from prospective clients.
* Access Living
* Chicago Public Schools
* Equip for Equality
* Great Lakes ADA & IT Center
* Illinois Department of Human Rights: Fair Housing Division
* Illinois Department of Human Services: Division of Rehabilitation
* Illinois Office of Attorney General Lisa Madigan
* Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities
* Progress Center South for Independent Living
* Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital
State responds, but more help needed
In October 2004, Gov. Rod Blagojevich put together the state's panel to address the alarming rate of Latinos suffering from workplace injuries. With members from government, labor and public health, the panel laid out myriad hazards facing all workers and spelled out specific solutions to these obstacles.
And the Illinois General Assembly responded.
In 2005, using language practically identical to the panel's recommendations, legislators voted to amend both the state's Day and Temporary Labor Services Act and Workers' Compensation Act.
Employment agencies that negotiate between employers and day laborers are now required to pay $1,000 to register with the state or face $500 a day in fines. These employment agencies must also provide workers with precise information about their job assignments and pay. In addition, workers' compensation insurance is now mandatory--forcing employers to have the money necessary to pay for workplace injury claims.
But movement has been slow on panel recommendations for central data collection to keep track of injuries and outreach to let all Latino workers know their legal rights.
Some worker advocates say that the individuals most vulnerable to injuries--undocumented and non-English speaking Latino workers--need these improvements in order to benefit from the new legislation.
"It's about half the pie right now," said Tim Bell, executive director of the Chicago Workers' Collaborative, a group that advocates for improved labor standards for low-wage workers in Illinois. "We have workers' compensation insurance, but the workers don't know how to complain."
In addition, Rene David Luna, community and economic development team leader of the disability advocacy group Access Living, said undocumented workers are nervous about filing health and safety complaints with the state.
"There's a fear about the state starting to cross-reference social security numbers with the federal government," Luna said.
But state officials said those fears are unwarranted.
"Workers do not need to provide [the Illinois Department of Labor with] a social security number," said Anjali Julka, communications manager for both the Illinois Department of Labor and the Illinois Department of Human Rights.
"Instead of discriminating against undocumented workers, we are going out of our way to protect them," said Gerardo Cardenas, press secretary to Blagojevich.
The panel recommended a worker safety fund that would create workers' centers to train advocates and workers alike on laws involving occupational health and safety. Outreach was also to include a public education program that would focus on Spanish-speaking media.
But the state has yet to put forth the money necessary for such advocacy.
"The panel was unclear as to who was to be responsible for creating the fund," Julka said in an e-mail. "We have not established it and do not have funding to support this."
Bell said that outreach could clear up confusion among workers and activists for workers' rights as to whether undocumented immigrants enjoy the same legal protections as citizens.
The panel also pushed for the creation of a database that centralizes data on occupational illnesses and injuries. The panel concluded that a centrally located database was necessary for determining "the extent and scope of occupational issues."
In an e-mail, Julka said that a variety of information on worker injuries is filtered into the Illinois Department of Public Health's Occupational Disease Registry. But the state has yet to fund a one-stop database on workplace injuries and fatalities that government officials and legislators have proposed to house at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health.
The lack of a sufficient program to track occupational injuries has frustrated government officials and workers' rights advocates.
"I wrote a federal grant proposal about having the necessary workers' compensation data," said panel member Dr. Linda Forst, an associate professor with the UIC School of Public Health. "I got a really great letter from the governor supporting it. But there has not been specific funding."
This is the second installment in a three-part series for Chicago Matters: Beyond Borders, to explore the impact of immigration in Chicago and the region. Chicago Matters is an annual public information series made possible by The Chicago Community Trust, with programming by WTTW 11, Chicago Public Radio, the Chicago Public Library, and The Chicago Reporter. For more information, visit www.chicagomatters.org.
Matthew Blake, Danielle Hester and Alena Scarver helped research this article.
Suffering in silence Since 1992, undocumented workers in Illinois have been protected from workplace discrimination by the Illinois Human Rights Act. But less than 1 percent of employment discrimination charges were filed on that basis in 2005. Basis of discrimination No. of charges Sex 1,248 (21%) Race 1,093 (18%) Age 906 (15%) National Origin/Ancestry 863 (14%) Retaliation 745 (12%) Physical Handicap 615 (10%) All Others 564 (9%) Citizenship Status 38 (<1%) Source: Illinois Department of Human Rights Note: Table made from bar graph.