Column: Workers' Comp

Opinion | Our Hypocrisy and Callousness Toward Undocumented Workers

By: | July 16, 2018

Roberto Ceniceros is senior editor at Risk & Insurance® and chair of the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. He can be reached at [email protected] Read more of his columns and features.

President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” illegal immigration policy that separated parents from children outraged many Americans.

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Disturbingly though, some Americans cheered the action.

Equally disturbing to me is a lack of compassion exhibited by shady employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers then dump them should they get injured on the job.

These employers take advantage of poor people, knowing workers in the country illegally are unlikely to report the employer’s failure to purchase workers’ compensation insurance or provide mandated medical care and indemnity.

Legislation currently before Ohio’s Senate Insurance and Financial Institutions Committee would essentially legalize such practices.

While Ohio businesses and residents rely on undocumented worker labor — evidenced by the recent arrests of more than 200 workers at Ohio meat processing plants and flower nurseries — House Bill 380 would bar “illegal or unauthorized aliens” from receiving workers’ comp benefits.

The bill also calls for granting employers immunity from liability for undocumented worker injuries.

Over the years, insurers, to their credit, have often helped quash similar bills proposed across different states, by arguing such a law would encourage unscrupulous employers to hire more illegal immigrants because they get to forego workers’ comp expenses.

Immigrants are already at a disadvantage when it comes to obtaining workers’ comp benefits that they are legally entitled to.

Workers’ comp claims professionals and nurse case managers tell me that the normal challenges of providing medical care increase when undocumented workers don’t speak English, don’t have valid Social Security numbers, or use pseudonyms.

Their poverty often results in their changing addresses or losing phone service frequently, making them difficult for case managers to locate.

These employers take advantage of poor people, knowing workers in the country illegally are unlikely to report the employer’s failure to purchase workers’ compensation insurance or provide mandated medical care and indemnity.

If they are located, case managers must overcome a heightened sense of mistrust.

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All these factors increase the likelihood that undocumented workers won’t receive the level of care they might otherwise get.

It’s reasonable to think fear caused by recent increased immigration enforcement is spreading even more reluctance to seek workplace injury treatment.

A Denver-area doctor who primarily treats workers’ comp claimants, including about 30 percent who only speak Spanish, recently told me that in past years he treated one or two workers per week who couldn’t provide Social Security numbers.

“It becomes pretty clear when someone has no Social Security number and is undocumented,” he said.

“Sometimes they would admit it, or say ‘oh, I don’t have that and it’s somewhere else,’ and they are never able to find it.”

But over the past year or so with increased enforcement of immigration laws those workers aren’t showing up at the doctor’s office. He thinks they are now more afraid that a system they don’t understand will expose their immigration status.

“I was used to seeing several undocumented workers and treating them,” the doctor said.

“The reality, I think, is we are just not seeing them anymore because they are afraid to seek care for their work injuries.”

Some Americans likely will cheer that result. But that reaction is too callous for me to endorse.

Border security and the 11 million undocumented people living in the country are topics our nation should be addressing.

Let’s be honest. We depend on millions of undocumented workers to run the restaurants we dine in, produce the food we consume and construct the buildings we occupy.

It amazes me that some people find it morally acceptable to rely on their labor and then deny them basic medical care when they experience a workplace injury. &

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