Guest workers toil in some of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. But when they suffer injuries, all too often they are denied access to appropriate medical care and benefits. Those who are seriously injured face enormous, often insurmountable, obstacles to obtaining workers’ compensation benefits.
There are no clear rules guaranteeing that workers’ compensation benefits will continue when injured workers return to their home country, which they inevitably must do.
Guest workers injured, receive no compensation
Leonel Hernandez-Lopez of Guatemala was working as a tree planter in 2004 when he cut his right knee badly on the job.
“I was very sick for 30 days, with six stitches on my wound,” he said. “I never received any help from the company, even having to pay for my own medicine from my own pocket. All the while I had to keep paying rent on the hotel room where I was staying, even though I made no money. … The only thing I received from the company was belittling, humiliation, mistreatment and bad pay.”
Lopez’s experience isn’t unusual.
The forestry industry illustrates the problems many guest workers face in gaining access to benefits. Getting injured on the job – either in the forest or in the van traveling to and from the forest – is a common occurrence for tree planters. They rarely receive any compensation for medical costs or lost work.
The pressure on workers to keep injuries to themselves is tremendous. This is related to employers’ absolute control of the right of guest workers to be present in, work in and return to the U.S. Workers who report injuries are sometimes asked to sign forms saying they are quitting. They are told that if they sign and go home, they may be allowed to come back the following year.
Mexican forestry worker Jose Luis Macias was spraying herbicides in 2005 and took a bad fall after stepping on a branch that snapped.
“I fell backwards down about five meters and my leg ended up bent underneath me,” he said. “The supervisor told me, ‘Get up, get up,’ so that I would continue working. When he saw I did not want to get up, he said, ‘Don’t be a stupid wimp,’ so I had to keep spraying. My leg was swollen and I asked the crew leader to take me to the doctor. He told me … he didn’t have time to be taking me to the doctor.
“Finally I went to the doctor on my own. I have thousands of dollars in medical bills and I have never received any money for the time I lost from work. This was more than a year ago and my leg still swells, hurts and I almost can’t work.”