Leopoldo Zumaya stumbled while pruning a tree in 2004 and fell into a legal black hole. The apple picker’s broken leg got him promptly booted out of his work camp. And though he fought for the compensation he was entitled to, ultimately he received only a fraction of what a worker with immigration papers could have gotten under Pennsylvania state law.
According to Zumaya’s legal testimony, “The insurance company refused to pay for my workers’ compensation benefits when they found out from my employer that I was undocumented.” Without adequate workers’ compensation coverage or other benefits, he stated, “I have not been able to see a doctor, receive medication or undergo physical therapy.”
Like many products of the global economy, the undocumented immigrants who work in every US industry are treated like disposable goods, tossed away once worn out or damaged. But before an international commission this week, workers showed the scars that can’t be wiped away: the uncompensated damage wrought under a legal regime that renders them invisible.
On Monday at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a division of the Organization of American States, activists presented the stories of the undocumented to demand accountability from a government that they say systematically abets injury and abuse. The National Employment Law Project (NELP), the ACLU and other advocates, argued before the IACHR that a combination of regressive court rulings, draconian immigration enforcement, and restrictive state policies turn the law into a source of further trauma for harmed workers.
The ACLU highlighted the case of Zumaya as an example of how worker safety and health is undermined by the malign neglect of these policies. The root of these problems, they say, is the Supreme Court’s decision in Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB, which laid the legal foundation for Zumaya’s hard landing in 2002. The court ruled that an undocumented worker who is wrongfully fired is—because of his status—not entitled to back wages. (That is, the label branding these workers “illegal” becomes essentially a “get out of jail free” card for bosses who actually abuse the law themselves.)
For more than a decade, the advocates explained, “Hoffman’s progeny—the combination of state laws, employer cooperation with law enforcement, and other state and federal practices—has prevented workers like Petitioner Leopoldo Zumaya, who was severely injured on the job, from accessing their rightful workers’ compensation benefits.” While the compensation and insurance systems are generally inadequate for all workers (with work-related injuries costing them nearly $200 billion in 2012), immigrant workers are among the most vulnerable, working in rough, high-risk jobs and systematically denied basic health protections.