This article appears in the April 2022 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
HOUSTON – Christmas was around the corner, and he needed money for gifts. As he sized up the job, though, he was worried. There wasn’t the right equipment to climb the tree and he also wanted someone to hold the ladder as he climbed. He had worked for a tree-cutting firm, so he knew about safety.
But the contractor, who had offered him the job cutting down a tree at a condo, wouldn’t agree.
And so, Raymundo Mendoza took the chance.
The ladder slipped, sending him plunging downward, landing on his back. The contractor fled the scene and has never been seen again. A passing public bus driver saw him lying on the ground and called an ambulance. At the hospital, they told him he was paralyzed.
That was 13 years ago. Today, Mendoza is a volunteer and one of the leaders at a small nonprofit here that provides free wheelchairs, medical supplies, and support to paralyzed immigrants and refugees, among them workers like him. The organization was founded about 17 years ago when Harris County was cutting its budget.
Fixing donated wheelchairs and handing out medical supplies over the years, Mendoza has watched a steady march of Latino workers with bodies broken like his. And hearts too.
Without papers or health insurance, Mendoza didn’t think he could survive. Depression overcame him initially—as is the case for many undocumented Latino workers injured on the job. “It’s a 360 turn on life,” he said. “I could do many things from one day to the next. Now, I can’t do anything.”
What he has seen also leaves him little hope for others like him, he explained from the offices of the Living Hope Wheelchair Association. “It’s the same thing. It’s a lack of [safety] equipment. It’s sad that so many of our people are the most common victims of accidents.”
Statistics bear out his grim observation.
5,179 workers died on the job in Texas during the decade of the 2010s—more than in any other state. Two-thirds of those who died on construction sites were Latino.
The toll of Latinos killed or hurt on the job has steadily grown across the United States, particularly in low-wage jobs where Latino workers predominate—construction, meat processing, landscaping, farm work, and warehousing. They’re injured or they die in collapsed ditches; they fall off roofs, ladders, and scaffolds; they lose their lives in accidents where machines mangle their bodies. Excessive heat overwhelms them when they don’t get water or rest breaks. In meat processing plants, according to a hearing by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, their lives have been ended from exposure to the COVID virus.
In meat and poultry processing plants across the U.S., Latinos came down with 56 percent of the COVID cases, although they were only 30 percent of the plants’ workforce, according to a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study in July 2020.
But disproportionate Latino deaths was a pre-existing condition. While workplace fatalities have shrunk or stayed the same for other demographic groups, the number of Latino deaths has actually increased.
There were 1,072 Latinos killed on the job in accidents or unsafe situations in 2020 in the U.S., a 43 percent increase over 2011.
The workplace fatality rate for Latinos nationally in 2020 climbed to 4.5 per 100,000, up from 4.2 the previous year. Meanwhile, the rate for whites was 3.3, and 3.5 for Blacks; both numbers declined in 2020.
Latinos accounted for 16 percent of all workplace deaths in 2011 nationally, but the number steadily grew to 22.5 percent in 2020.
When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said, “We understand Hispanic workers play a critical role in our nation’s workforce but face an increased risk of injuries and illnesses on the job. That’s why we are placing special emphasis on our enforcement efforts to focus on underserved workers in the highest risk industries like construction. No worker should have to put their paycheck ahead of their safety, so we are committed to doing everything we can to make sure employers are doing their job so that workers can safely do theirs.”
TEXAS HAS LONG BEEN a dangerous place for all workers. From 2010 to 2019, it led the U.S. in the number of workplace deaths—5,171. In 2020, another 469 lives were lost there in workplace accidents.
In Texas, workers struggle with an unusual workers’ compensation system that leaves some workers without protection, and lets some companies set their own compensation rules. While employers have cut costs at workers’ expense, the state has been home to a construction boom with unchecked workplace dangers. An increasingly right-wing legislature has steadily refused to provide protections.
Texas topped the nation in 2020 with 221 deaths among Latino workers, followed by California (home to millions more Latinos than Texas) with 214, and Florida with 82. Texas has led the nation in Latinos’ workplace deaths for 13 out of the last 20 years.
As was the case throughout those years, nearly two-thirds of the Latinos who died on the job in 2020 in Texas were born outside the U.S. The data doesn’t tell us how many were undocumented.
One of the most deadly jobs for Latinos is construction, accounting for just over one-third of their workplace deaths nationally in 2020. In Texas, there were 129 construction deaths in 2020, the nation’s highest toll for construction workers. Latinos made up two-thirds of those who lost their lives on these construction jobs in Texas. Latinos account for about 39 percent of the state’s population, but make up more than half of the state’s construction job workers.
HOUSTON IS WHERE this reality has been playing out for many years. The city’s long-running boom has been a dream for some Latinos, but a nightmare for some of those who build the highways, malls, and upscale housing in the nation’s fourth-largest city. It’s been especially nightmarish for job-hungry Latinos who take the low-wage, high-risk construction jobs that come their way—though these jobs may last only a few days, and getting paid is not a sure thing.
Forty-five percent of Latinos in the Houston area could not cover a $400 emergency expense, and 41 percent had no health insurance—rates that exceed those suffered by the area’s Black residents, a recent survey showed.
Many of the undocumented Latino workers interviewed by a Latino worker advocacy group said that, since they didn’t have insurance, they went to hospital emergency rooms when they were sick. Because they are denied most federally funded health services, undocumented workers in Houston rely on a “a patchwork” of health care facilities, according to the recent report by Fe y Justicia, an organization that serves low-wage workers in Houston.
At Harris Health, however, one of the Houston area’s largest health care facilities, one official said the undocumented are not turned away for care because of their legal status. The problem, he suggested, is that they fail to meet the income requirements or do not complete the applications.
One of those just scraping by is Edwin Hernandez, a migrant from El Salvador, who fell off a ladder on a construction job nine years ago, leaving him paralyzed. His life ever since has been an example of what can happen to a worker without papers and few resources.
For much of the time since his accident, Hernandez has lived in a shelter run by a church in Houston’s suburbs or in a dingy apartment. He has eked out a living fixing cars from his wheelchair, but just getting around his apartment poses challenges. He has trouble lifting up and maneuvering his wheelchair to enter the narrow doorway, and he’s had to remove the bathroom doorway so he could access that room.
The apartment—its rent paid for by the church—is in a low-income housing complex like many that sprawl across Harris County. Nearby garbage bins overflow. With high fences and gated entrances, some of these developments feel like prisons. The Houston area has the second-lowest percentage of housing available for the very poor among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, a recent study showed.
Depression has overcome him at times, but Hernandez talks nonetheless of feeling proud. “No matter what, I have never panhandled for money,” he says.
The numbers on workplace injuries don’t tally the onset and persistence of depression. They do not tell us about the lingering illnesses, or the emotional and financial losses suffered by the injured and their families and loved ones. Even the tally of the injuries themselves is incomplete: Many firms and workers do not report injuries to OSHA, government reports show. (OSHA officials could not say how many of their inspections in Texas focused on incomplete injury logs alone.) That’s why the fatality figures are such an important and horrifying gauge. But fatality numbers are only the “tip of the iceberg,” explained Kevin Riley, director of the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program.
Jose Avalos, 36, an undocumented migrant from Mexico, can testify to the uncounted aftereffects. Renovating a house five years ago, he fell through an opening, landed flat on his back on the floor below, and was paralyzed. He has since relied on family support because he has neither health insurance nor workers’ compensation benefits. He was working for a contractor, a relative, who provided some weekly compensation to him for two years and then stopped, he said.
Not long after his accident, his marriage dissolved. He sank into depression, and family members paid for his counseling. “I still have hospital bills and I have no idea about [how to pay] them,” he said, sitting in an SUV outside Raymundo Mendoza’s wheelchair organization, where he had come to pick up some supplies. For no cost, the paralyzed can get gloves (for their wheelchairs), catheters, adult diapers, and donated wheelchairs that have been repaired.
Sitting in a car adjusted for a paralyzed driver, Avalos doubted that others like him could avoid his fate. “It’s not fair. It’s because we are immigrants that is what we end up doing,” he said.
WHY DO SO MANY Latinos die on the job? The explanations are many.
It’s the lack of English, making it harder to understand safety instructions or ask for them. It’s the lack of safety instruction, equipment, or training. It’s the need to work a huge number of hours to steadily send money back home to families that need it to survive. It’s the reluctance of men coming from traditional societies, who do not admit their limitations, or are accustomed to unsafe working conditions. It’s the fear of being deported that drives them to take risks.
It is a fear, workers in Houston say, of speaking up to bosses, who tell you that you can’t go home until the job is done but only pay you for eight hours when you’ve put in more, who don’t tell you how much you are being paid at the start of the job, or who threaten to turn you over to immigration if you make problems.
Overall, Latino workers across the U.S., researchers say, tend to be younger and more inexperienced, lack training in the job, earn lower wages, and work for small outfits. They take jobs in sectors that others avoid. They clean up after hurricanes and disasters, at their own peril. They also make up most of the nation’s roofers, a job with a well-known high injury rate. They accounted for 56 percent of roofer deaths in 2020.
They face dangers others won’t.
For Vanessa, her past five years as a drywall finisher have been full of dangers and exploitation. (At her request, we’ve changed her name to protect her, as she explained, from “being blackballed” by contractors.) A contractor had recently fired her for raising complaints at a safety meeting, she said, and she could not afford to lose more jobs.
Last year, standing on several foot-high metal stilts so she could reach higher spots while doing drywall, she fell down and hurt her shoulder, an injury that still pains her. She fell, she explained, because debris covered the construction site and she stepped on it while wearing the stilts. Stilts are banned on construction jobs in California and Massachusetts.
“I’ve seen people bleeding, but they don’t say anything because they are afraid of getting sent home,” Vanessa said. Not long ago, she worked a 16-hour day and, exhausted, felt as though her head was in a dangerous fog by the time she quit.
EDGAR MORENO, 39, mainly works as a drywaller, but as a day laborer he takes whatever he can get. That’s why he was working on the roof of a house in November 2020, when he slipped, fell, and badly injured his heel. He pulled out a photo to show how badly swollen his heel was at the time. The contractor didn’t have the commonplace equipment such as a harness that would have prevented the fall, he said. Since the accident, he said, he has tried reaching the contractor to ask for help with his medical bills, but he’s been unsuccessful.
An emergency clinic told him he needed surgery, but he doesn’t have insurance and cannot afford it. Worse, he hasn’t been able to work for the last few months. “The only thing I can do is rest,” he said, sitting in a ramshackle small house near a row of refineries where he rents a bed for $300 a month. When he is working, he sends money home to his wife and three children in Mexico. He’s eager to get back to work, he said, even though his foot hurts him.
Going home to Mexico, where he was a miner, is out of the question, he added. “Those mines pay less, and they are much more dangerous,” he said.
He is like many workers in Houston, who say they are victims of bosses who vanish as soon as someone gets hurt. It’s a familiar situation to Ruben Rendon, a longtime workers’ compensation lawyer in Houston.
“Those are the guys who really get railroaded,” Rendon said. “Instead of putting them on an ambulance they put them on a plane to go home. I had a client who was in the hospital, and the employer sent his brother to the hospital. He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to send him home?’ The doctors protested … the airline wouldn’t accept him because he was bleeding, and his sister called me and put him back into the hospital.”
Going after employers who abuse their workers isn’t easy, said Sean Goldhammer, director of employment and legal services for the Workers Defense Project, a nonprofit that serves immigrant construction workers across Texas. He said many immigrants work for contractors who don’t provide workers’ compensation—largely because of the downward pressure to subcontract in order to cut costs and minimize any responsibilities toward their workers. “As you go down the line of contractors, you will almost never see workers’ compensation. You will see wage theft and not providing safety equipment,” Goldhammer said.
The Workers Defense Project often pursues employers who fail to pay their workers. But workers represented by the organization get their money in less than 50 percent of their cases, he said. “They [contractors] will change their names and disappear, and then there’s no hope of judgment,” Goldhammer said.
An official with the Texas Workforce Commission said in an email that the agency had ruled that $11.8 million in unpaid wages was due workers in 2020–2021. But in a reply to a public information request for this article, the state admitted it was able to collect only 7 percent of “total unpaid claims” in 2021 of claims dating back to the 1990s because the businesses no longer existed and claims not paid in full are considered uncollected.
Being stiffed on pay feeds into a downward spiral that leads workers into ever more vulnerable lives. Without money, they sink into depression and bad decisions come fast. They take whatever job they can get—and that often means the riskiest jobs. They don’t eat well or rest and their health declines. “As long as these conditions exist, you’re going to have the problems of workers exposing themselves to dangers, without safety precautions, because they need to support themselves and their families,” said Maria Eugenia Fernández-Esquer, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston.
In this system, being a conscientious contactor can still leave you vulnerable to being exploited by other contractors. Eliezer, 39, a short, muscular immigrant El Salvadoran, has suffered from falls and cuts on the job. Eliezer, who asked that his full name not be used here, has found some success, however, by becoming a contractor himself. That has enabled him to find work for 13 family members and friends. They do drywall installing and tapering. Lately, however, he himself has been stiffed, he said, by two contractors, who owe him about $13,000.
He has paid his workers by taking the money out of his own savings. He doubts that he will get the money owed him. He said he had talked to a lawyer, who didn’t want to take the case. He tried everything he could think of, he said, but nothing could help him get the money he was owed.
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES of workers winning more on-the-job protections in Texas?
In a state that prides itself on being business-friendly, workers can’t expect much help from state agencies, the state’s business groups, or its Republican-dominated legislature, say union officials and worker advocacy groups. And while the state’s largest cities have become increasingly liberal, the legislature and the courts have frequently blocked their attempts to make workplaces safe.
In the last few years, Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio all passed ordinances requiring sick pay for employees. The ordinances were quickly challenged by business groups with the support of the Texas attorney general. The issue worked its way up in the Texas courts until a federal district court judge in Texas struck down the Dallas ordinance last year, leading the way for undoing the other ordinances.
Republican lawmakers had also pushed unsuccessfully in 2021 to sweep away local ordinances in Austin and Dallas that require rest breaks for workers. Public-health experts, unions, and worker advocacy groups have campaigned for rest break regulations across the state. Nine states today require rest breaks.
Austin passed its rest break ordinance in 2010, and Dallas followed in 2015. Citing the extreme summer heat in Texas, safety advocates point to the high rate of workers overcome by heat; they cite in particular the death of Roendy Granillo, a 25-year-old Latino worker, who had put in 14 hours in blistering heat installing a floor in a house in a Dallas suburb. His contractor had reportedly turned down his request for a water break.
Dr. John Corker, an emergency room physician, told the Dallas City Council in a letter at a hearing for rest breaks that he had regularly treated construction workers suffering from heat distress, and that regular water and rest breaks would easily solve the problem. Corker, who has since moved to Ohio, said recently in an interview that by the time he saw Granillo, his organs had shut down and he could no longer be saved.
A frequent opponent to rules such as rest breaks is the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential conservative group with views often warmly embraced by Gov. Greg Abbott and the state’s conservative Republican lawmakers. But Robert Henneke, executive director and general counsel for the organization, rejected complaints that workers’ interests get a low priority in the state. “Texas is a pro-worker state in that it allows the freedom for workers to negotiate for terms that are best suited for them instead of mandates that fit all,” he said.
Henneke led the lawsuit to strike down the sick pay ordinances in Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio. He described the campaign for rest breaks as a “red herring, fear mongering tactic.”
But government statistics and research indicate otherwise.
Texas is the only state where employers can set their own workers’ compensation rules. One state study showed that a full quarter of those employers don’t pay death benefits to families of workers who died on the job.
Last fall, in the first year of the Biden administration, OSHA began the process of creating a standard to protect workers in excess-heat situations, a protection long sought by unions and public-health experts. Spelling out its reasoning for the rule, the agency noted that there had been “31,560 work-related heat injuries and illnesses involving days away from work” between 2011 and 2019. It added that the figures on heat-related illness and deaths are considered underreported.
In Texas, unions and worker advocacy groups have called for the state to set up its own OSHA, as 22 other states have. They say a state plan would do a better job than the federal government’s, and some research shows this to be the case. At best, they say the federal government isn’t doing the job. The effort, however, has gone nowhere in the legislature, according to the Texas AFL-CIO.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has about 99 inspectors in Texas, according to estimates from the AFL-CIO. Dean Wingo, a former OSHA inspector in Texas and currently a public-health consultant, says the federal effort there is overwhelmed and unable to do preventive work. “It is like a doctor trying to practice preventive medicine in an emergency room.”
An OSHA official in Dallas said that the agency has not carried out any studies focusing on the high rate of injuries or deaths among Latinos in Texas, but added that the agency had reached out to consulates in Texas that help immigrants and several years ago set up a regional effort to help employers and employees impacted by heat-related health problems.
WORKERS’ COMPENSATION IN TEXAS neither saves nor protects workers, say unions and worker advocacy groups. Texas is the only state that doesn’t require employers to provide workers’ compensation. The result is a stew of options that saves money for employers at workers’ expense.
One option is for employers to sign up for a state-supported system and to follow its rules and regulations. About 70 percent of the state’s employers belong to this system. Another option allows employers to operate outside of the state system and set their own rules. Texas doesn’t monitor these employers. Their benefits are reportedly more limited, and the criteria for employees to qualify more strict. One-fourth of employers in this group do not pay death benefits to decedents’ families, according to a state study in 2018.
And then there are the employers who do not offer any workers’ compensation whatsoever to their employees. A 2018 study by the state estimated that about 6.5 percent of the state’s private-sector workers had to cope with this reality.
A major flaw with the setup is that few employers outside the state-supported system comply with a requirement to report all worker injuries, according to the state Division of Workers’ Compensation, a part of the Texas Department of Insurance. This makes it difficult to measure the extent of worker injuries and set up prevention efforts.
Saying that Texas workers need more protections, the Texas AFL-CIO has pushed to make workers’ compensation mandatory for all workers. But Rick Levy, a lawyer who serves as the group’s president, said that is highly unlikely “until we make some political changes.” Unions have little political clout, he explained, in a right-to-work state, and in fact only 3.8 percent of Texas workers belong to unions, a number that has steadily declined in recent years.
Richard Pena, a longtime workers’ compensation attorney in Austin, bemoans the workers’ compensation system’s burden on workers. “One time I went to a hearing, and I made an argument about fairness. I said this is not fair and the judge said don’t use that word again in court,” recalled Pena, a former president of the State Bar of Texas and the Travis (Austin) County Bar Association.
He complained as well that the system was redesigned years ago to “drive out lawyers and to limit payments.” A 2017 study pointed to a higher rate of injuries among uninsured workers and widespread underreporting of injuries. Hispanic workers were more likely than others to be uninsured, and their workplace injuries wrongly recorded by hospitals, according to the study.
The failure to win statewide changes for workers hasn’t stopped some activists from trying. There have been wins, big and small.
“We recognized that it is incredibly difficult to pass things at the state level,” said Jessica Wolff, deputy director of Better Builder and policy for the Workers Defense Project (WDP). So the WDP turned to cities.
After a campaign by the WDP, Austin in 2016 and Travis County in 2018 approved the Better Builder program, which requires city-funded projects to boost workers’ wages, requires builders to meet federal safety standards, trains workers and employers to meet those standards, and relies on the WDP and local government employees to monitor construction projects.
Last fall, Harris County officials agreed to set up an Essential Workers Board, the nation’s first public body that gives workers a role in determining health and safety policies. The workers will come from the WDP and other worker advocacy groups.
WHATEVER CHANGES WILL COME, they may be too late for Daniel Puente.
Puente, 42, is a strapping, muscular man, six foot, five inches tall, who fills his wheelchair. An undocumented immigrant from Monterey, Mexico, he had been working in Houston for over 15 years, mostly on regular jobs, and was on a new job for a few weeks in October 2019 at Turner Coatings, in the city of Spring, a small community about 20 miles north of Houston. Given a few minutes’ notice, he was asked to take a job in a sandblasting booth to work on a crane boom, he said.
According to an OSHA report, the boom, weighing about five tons, “was placed on horses that sat on the uneven surface of the booth. The load was not secured from movement to prevent it from coming into contact with an employee.”
It flipped over and pinned him, Puente said.
“The floor of the sandblasting booth is not level and is in need of repair,” said notes from an OSHA inspector after the accident in a report obtained by a FOIA request. A company official told the OSHA inspector that “the issues with the floor in the sandblasting area have been brought up to him by employees” and that the company was “planning to move to a new location and did not have plans to repair the floor.” The report added that “the floor in the sandblast booth has needed repairs for years.” The company was fined $9,446, but that was reduced to $6,612. Another inspection nearly a year later found other violations totaling $20,781, but again, in a settlement with the company, the amount was reduced to $8,906.
Despite emails and phone calls to the company’s office, it has not replied to requests to comment on the situation.
Life quickly unraveled for Puente after the accident. He lost his savings, his truck, his furniture, and his house. He and his wife moved with their five children into his mother-in-law’s small bungalow. He hired a lawyer to file a claim with the state’s workers’ compensation system, but he eventually let the lawyer go, saying he could not afford the lawyer’s fee. The attorney’s law firm would not discuss the case.
Puente said he has looked for another lawyer and admits he doesn’t understand how the system works. Workers’ compensation lawyers typically take their fees out of the compensation payments given to workers. Puente grumbled that he gets about $600 a week. “How can we people live on that?” he asked, lifting his arms.
He spent 100 days in the hospital after the accident, and his woes began to spiral. He was depressed and thought about taking his life. He developed lesions and then blood and urinary tract infections. He lifted his shirt to show where he has had repeated surgeries. “I’ve lost track of how many times we’ve gone back to the hospital,” said his wife, Leticia Castellanos, 36. She gave up a job as a school custodian to look after him.
Puente developed diabetes, but the company’s insurer wouldn’t cover the medical expense, he said. Attorneys explain that insurance companies in Texas will only pay for expenses they consider related to workers’ accidents.
He wanted the insurer to pay for a new doorway to fit his wheelchair, but it refused to. He was in a hospital for 20 days in December for health problems, when apparently he had a stroke, although he is not sure what happened. Leticia said he sometimes cannot remember words. He knows that he needs a complex heart operation, but he does not know what kind. His physician told him that it cannot take place until his blood infection is healed. His physician has also urged him to seek counseling, but Puente said the insurer rejected that too.
“It feels like I’m a child, not a man,” he said in a low voice, as his wife sat close by, tightly clutching his hand.
The Sidney Hillman Foundation provided support for this reporting.