Every summer, Hispanic men congregate along Flatbush Avenue in the New York City borough of Queens to wait for "pickup work," work that is literally handed out daily in home construction, lawn care and industrial cleaning by contractors with vans in search of cheap labor.
These men, immigrants all, some legal and many illegal, provide a steady supply of labor in a city hungry for it. Contractors park their trucks, haggle, and drive off with one or more men, who are guaranteed a day's work at $10 to $20 an hour.
But six years ago, on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, about 24 hours after the two tallest buildings in New York collapsed into a heap of rubble, a recruiter arrived looking for as many workers as possible.
The demand for these day laborers had suddenly surged as the toxic dust from the rubble of the World Trade Center settled into the canyons and crevices of Lower Manhattan. The lack of experience in demolition and catastrophe cleanup among the laborers was no obstacle for the contractors. Neither was the inability of these workers to speak English.
Within days, thousands of Columbians, Ecuadorians, Peruvians and even a few Poles were at work hosing down the caked facades and sweeping gypsum-filled interiors of office buildings in Lower Manhattan.
Few of these workers got to work on the smoldering debris, under which hundreds of bodies were entombed. Theirs was a more anonymous toil, literally wading through streets and lobbies of skyscrapers located around the New York Stock Exchange, past the famous bull on lower Broadway.
They plowed through the darkened lobbies of skyscrapers housing the powerhouse brands of the global financial services industry--Brown Brothers Harriman, HSBC and Thomson Financial.
Yet their work was, in many ways, no less dangerous than that of the firefighters and rescue crews working several hundred yards away on "the Pile," the area sealed off to all except federal, state and local emergency personnel.
TRACKING THE LABORERS
While the rescue efforts slowly gave way to recovery, and as state and federal officials declared the World Trade Center site safe, a team of doctors and health experts from state agencies and privately funded environmental health organizations continued to track the laborers as they did their part to help life in Lower Manhattan return to normal.
That's when the workers came into contact with Dr. Steven Markowitz, a physician affiliated with the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, part of Queens College. Markowitz helped staff a mobile unit where he and a team of physicians would conduct health tests on hundreds of day laborers.
Markowitz was horrified: Many of the workers trudged through the streets without proper personal protective equipment. The lucky ones, those who'd worked in asbestos removal before, ferreted out safety equipment through the offices of a labor union. But they were the exception.
Supervisors ordered the workers not to don the equipment as it might scare their fellow workers, according to Markowitz. "Ninety-nine percent of the workers were Hispanic day laborers. I'm not sure if any had filed a workers' comp claim by the time we saw them."
Markowitz, whose team later treated some of the workers in a Queens clinic, said it was sometimes not even clear to the clinicians who the employer was, the key variable in filing any workers' comp claim.
In all, some 8,000 immigrant day laborers helped to clean up Lower Manhattan, or 12 percent of private-sector rescue and recovery workers and volunteers. Based on a rough extrapolation of the city's employment patterns, it's likely that more than half of the day laborers cleaning Lower Manhattan were undocumented.
Precise numbers are almost impossible to come by. Clinicians don't ask about the legal status of workers. Advocacy groups argue that the matter is irrelevant. Neither state nor federal governments track this immigrant labor pool.
New York state courts remain divided over just what undocumented workers suffering from work-related illness are entitled to. In June 2006, a New York state appellate court ruled that day laborers working in the United States legally or illegally are eligible for compensation while injured on the job.
But in June of this year, a different New York state appeals court qualified those entitlements, ruling that undocumented workers were ineligible for "additional compensation" or benefits handed out to workers who lose more than 50 percent of their ability to function.
But as it turned out, those qualified entitlements were moot. Day laborers who speak little or no English have scant idea about how to obtain these protections, except with the help and the good will of advocacy groups.
Most hit a brick wall. The workers' compensation system in New York state does not compensate attorneys for medical-only claims, or claims for which only medical expenses are incurred. Thus, few lawyers are available to help laborers navigate the Byzantine maze that is the workers' comp system.
The workers themselves cannot afford to pay for legal representation. For those workers in the United States illegally, they fear being discovered were they to demand safety and workers' comp benefits.
PETER ROUSMANIERE is a Vermont-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
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October 1, 2007
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