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.