His misadventures in workers' comp land while he was in the United States serve as stark reminder of the plight of illegal workers who are injured on the job.
Of the 37.5 million foreign-born persons living here, 12 million are without documentation. Before U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported him in August, this 22-year-old from a mountain hamlet was one of 7.5 million people working here illegally.
I've followed his story through WorkCompCentral's online daily news service and The Providence Journal. What he's gone through speaks volumes about the perils of keeping 5 percent of our workforce in legal limbo.
In 2005, Velazquez paid a transporter --a "coyote"--to help him sneak into the United States. He got to Rhode Island, where his uncle helped him find work in landscaping. According to the Washington, D.C.-based research group the Pew Hispanic Center, one-quarter of that industry is staffed by illegals.
On March 31, 2006, while employed by Billy G's Tree Service in Warwick, R.I., Velazquez was cutting a tree limb when his chainsaw kicked back and slashed his face. Velazquez says company owner, William Gorman, refused to give him aid; so he and a co-worker called 911. Surgeons performed emergency reconstructive surgery.
Velazquez's wounds have largely healed, but he suffers from permanent nerve damage. His situation, although tragic for him, provides a case study for the rest of us.
Illegal workers often have no idea about their workers' compensation rights. Hospitals and clinics typically assign them a free care account due to their lack of money. It's not unusual for an illegal to take months to recover from a serious injury before realizing that they can submit a claim. That's the path Velazquez took in early 2007, when he retained a lawyer.
On Aug. 2, the lawyer was in a Providence courthouse when ICE arrested Velazquez outside. After time in ICE detention centers in Massachusetts and Texas, Velazquez was dumped on the Mexican side of the border.
Gorman denies that he informed on Velazquez, but he's got his own problems: He had no workers' comp insurance. Hiring illegal workers and skipping workers' comp is a toxic cocktail throughout the country. The state is now asking Gorman to pay up to $1,000 for each day he operated his business without cover.
With no uninsured injured worker fund in Rhode Island, that means Velazquez' only resource may be Gorman's liability policy. But how can Velazquez sue Gorman from Mexico?
That question is being answered at two levels. Global Workers Justice is promoting better access to American courts for workers like Velazquez. Most states grant illegal immigrants employment rights. But the plaintiffs have to be here to state their case.
As for Velazquez, in September, through the intercession of Nevada Senator Harry Reid, ICE permitted him a brief "humanitarian" return the to United States. Velazquez's lawyer is also pressing the workers' comp claim against Gorman.
Whether Velazquez will ever be fairly compensated remains to be seen. But his case is just one of what must be many, and I estimate that half of them go unreported. For those who do report cases, the frequent lag in their reporting and the deportation risk present them with obstacles as dreadful as Velazquez' chainsaw.
PETER ROUSMANIERE, a Vermont-based consultant and writer, is the workers' comp columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
November 1, 2007
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