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All Workers Have Rights

By Brian O’Dwyer and Joel Magallan

O’Dwyer is an attorney with the Manhattan firm of O’Dwyer and Bernstien, LLP. Magallan is the Executive Director of Asociación Tepeyac de Nueva York.

When a four-story building collapsed in Brooklyn last month, attention was drawn again to how dangerous construction work is not only for residents, but for workers, many of whom are undocumented Latinos.

Many contractors actually prefer to hire undocumented workers, figuring they will work more cheaply and will not complain about unsafe working conditions out of fear an employer will turn them in to immigration authorities.

Three recently settled lawsuits stemming from severe work site injuries to undocumented workers, however, underscore that all workers, whatever their immigration status, have the same rights to a safe workplace guaranteed under federal, state and city laws.

The three cases unfortunately are typical of injuries suffered due to unsafe workplaces:

A 33-year-old undocumented Mexican plumber was severely injured after being scalded by an exploding pipe while in Lower Manhattan. He settled his damage claim for $2.5 million.

A 52-year-old undocumented Mexican man suffered a severe injury to his foot and other parts of his body from a falling beam while working on a gut rehabilitation job in Lower Manhattan. He received $750,000.

A 36-year-old undocumented Ecuadorian laborer working a framing and roofing job in Far Rockaway suffered multiple fractures and other injuries when three large trusses – each weighing 200 pounds – suddenly collapsed and fell on him. He received $600,000.

Two of the injured workers were regular employees – one owned his business and another was a union member – signaling how undocumented New Yorkers are central to the fabric of city life. Many other cases – including a Mexican man who received $4 million after being severely injured in a 2001 Bronx scaffold collapse – involve undocumented workers exploited as day laborers by contractors who pay them off the books and maintain grossly unsafe work sites.

Especially under President Obama, it is hard to imagine immigration authorities deporting someone in for asserting their rights to a safe workplace. Enforcing workplace safety laws protects all Americans, whether they are citizens or not.

Undocumented workers should seek guidance from organizations such as Manhattan’s Asociación Tepeyac or Queens’ Emerald Isle Immigration Center, which provide services regardless of ethnicity or immigration status. Those groups work with lawyers such as those at O’Dwyer and Bernstien, LLP, with long records of protecting the rights of undocumented workers.

The message has to go out to undocumented workers, and their employers, that seeking redress for workplace injuries caused by unsafe conditions is everybody’s right. The American legal system can protect that right, whether the worker is a citizen or not.


“O’Dwyer & Bernstien has helped me in several different situations over the last 12 years that I’ve lived in NYC. They’re my go-to firm because they always obtain the results that I need and deserve. They’re also located in downtown Manhattan, which makes them very convenient. The office and people that work there are exactly what you’d expect from a top tier law firm in the world’s greatest city.”

“When I got hurt in a traffic accident while riding my bike in New York City, my friend suggested I speak to O’Dwyer & Bernstien. Upon my initial phone conversation with a lawyer from the firm I was impressed by his courtesy, quick return phone calls and concise explanation of the legal tactics available to me. After meeting face to face with him, I decided immediately to retain O’Dwyer & Bernstien to represent me in my personal injury case. I was very happy with my attorney and with the outcome of my case. I highly recommend O’Dwyer & Bernstien to anyone seeking legal representation.”

“I retained O’Dwyer & Bernstien on the recommendation of a friend. I was immediately impressed by the firm’s experience and reputation in personal injury law. From the start, my ODB attorney walked me through the process, answered all my questions, explained everything clearly, kept me updated regularly and always promptly returned my telephone calls and emails. My attorney was knowledgeable, professional, courteous and diligent. My case moved through the court system quickly. As trial neared, the insurance company saw that my attorney was experienced and thoroughly prepared to try my case to verdict. As a result, the insurance company caved and settled my case for the full limits of the insurance policy. I love my ODB attorney!”

“When I was hurt on the job I had nowhere to turn for help. I had been working as an electrician’s helper, but my boss was not insured and he had no license to do electrical work. I had just had a new baby girl and Con Ed was going to shut off my lights. A friend told me to call O’Dwyer & Bernstien. They took action right away and got great money for my case. ODB helped me get my life back on track. I will always be grateful.”