Tearfully, Juana Maria Molina told the story of how her husband Orlando was killed on the job one year ago. He was a day laborer, and on the day of his death, he was picked up to trim trees. He was killed instantly when he contacted an overhead power line. Orlando was the sole breadwinner for his family and the only one with a driver’s license. The loss of a husband and a father has left Juana and her four kids in a deep financial hole. To them, it now seems there is no way out.
How does this occur in one of the wealthiest counties in the US? How can such tragedies be prevented in the future?
That was the subject of a public hearing of the Montgomery County Commission on Worker Safety and Health held in Silver Spring, Maryland, on September 21, 2012. At the hearing, County Executive Isaiah Leggett and three councilmembers stressed the importance of immigrant work to the local economy and the need to address the safety problems of immigrant workers. Over half the immigrant workers in Maryland live and work in Montgomery County.
The hearing also heard testimony from:
- Dr. Andrea Kidd-Taylor, Morgan State University and the Maryland Public Health Association, who gave an overview of the safety and health challenges faced by immigrant workers
- Mary Ann Garrahan, OSHA Regional Administrator for Region 3 (Mid-Atlantic), who detailed the outreach OSHA has been doing to immigrant worker communities
- Scott Jensen, State of Maryland Department of Labor, who spoke about the commitment and challenges faced by Maryland OSHA; he reported on the new Maryland law on “workplace fraud,” designed to crack down on misclassification of “independent contractors”
- Chris Trahan, Deputy Director, CPWR—the Center for Construction Research and Training, who spoke of the research her organization has sponsored on the problems faced by immigrant, especially Hispanic, workers
- Tona Cravioto, Senior Manager of Vocational Training at CASA of Maryland, a day laborer center, who spoke of the OSHA-funded training programs CASA offers
- Terry Cavanaugh, Executive Director of Maryland/DC SEIU Council, who spoke about the role unions can play in assisting immigrant workers
Research proves that immigrant workers are at higher risk of injury and fatality than non-immigrants. Many immigrants work in construction, landscaping and tree trimming as day laborers. Others work in the hospitality industry in restaurants and hotels. Most DC area immigrants are Hispanic, from countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, but many other countries are represented.
The hearing highlighted the precarious nature of employment for immigrant workers. They often do not know the person who is hiring them. Employers often consider them, wrongly, to be “independent contractors.” They are afraid to speak up for fear of being blacklisted or deported. OSHA has a difficult time even finding these jobs to inspect them.
To address this problem, workers must be trained on the hazards they face and their right to a safe workplace. They also need “empowerment training” to encourage and teach them to speak up. Better strategies for enforcement are also important. Outreach to homeowners was also discussed, since much of the work is done at individual residences.
The hearing also took testimony from a representative of the Continental African community in the DC suburbs which urged more outreach to Africans in a culturally sensitive way. Many African immigrants work as Certified Nursing Assistants and are at high risk of injury.
The Commission will now review the testimony and begin to develop a County plan to address these issues.
The Univision report on the hearing (en espanol) is available.
[Scott Schneider, the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health, is a member of the Montgomery County Commission on Worker Safety and Health.]