Injured Worker's Firing Sparks Protest

Injured Worker's Firing Sparks Protest

Chanting in English and Spanish, protesters in downtown Austin on Saturday criticized what they called an improper firing of an injured worker. They also called for more protections for workers in Texas.

Hoping to bring attention to the plight of workers who are hurt or killed at construction sites in Texas, protesters converged Saturday on a high-rise apartment project in Austin where they say an injured worker got fired after reporting the accident to federal authorities. 

Chanting in English and Spanish, the protesters demanded that the migrant worker, 19-year-old Wilmer Sanchez Lopez of Honduras, be reinstated. They also called for more protections for workers in Texas, where pro-business laws and the lack of burdensome regulations are often cited as key pillars of the strong economy. 

“While we’re out there touting this Texas miracle, Texas is being built on the backs of workers who are injured, even killed on the job, or are considered replaceable or disposable by their employers,” said Emily Timm, deputy director of the Workers Defense Project, which organized the protest. “This is just not a sustainable way for us to build our state.”

More than two dozen protesters from the group marched to the construction site in downtown Austin and criticized the contractors for what they said was an improper firing.

Sanchez Lopez was hit in the back by a piece of reinforcing steel, known as rebar, when a load of the rods fell from a crane on Nov. 8 at the 7 Rio project, a high-rise apartment project at Seventh and Rio Grande streets in Austin, according to the Workers Defense Project. At least two other workers sustained injuries, the group said.

Sanchez Lopez, a member of the nonprofit worker advocacy group, informed the organization of his accident and was told to seek medical attention. He was treated in a clinic designated by his employer, concrete contractor Capform Inc. of Carrollton, said Gregorio Casar, political director of the Workers Defense Project.

The group, on behalf of Sanchez Lopez, then called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, the federal agency that oversees workplace accidents and deaths. Casar said OSHA had not been notified about the accident by Sanchez Lopez’s employer or by the general contractor, J.E. Dunn.

OSHA "didn’t know about it until we told them,” Casar said.

Sanchez Lopez met with representatives of OSHA on Nov. 19. Capform fired him the next day, Casar said.

A call to Capform’s Austin phone number produced a busy signal all afternoon Saturday, and a message left on the voicemail at the company’s corporate headquarters in Carrollton was not returned.

Representatives of J.E. Dunn, which posted a sign outside the 7 Rio project saying its job site was “recognized for safety excellence” by OSHA, did not return phone calls or email messages Saturday.

Messages left at OSHA’s Austin and Dallas offices were not returned. 

The Workers Defense Project is pressing OSHA to investigate the accident as a whistleblower retaliation case. Federal law prohibits discrimination against employees for reporting safety violations. The group said federal intervention is needed because state law doesn’t make it illegal to fire whistleblowers, whose actions can help prevent future accidents or deaths by calling attention to unsafe working conditions.

While worker deaths declined nationally last year, Texas saw worker deaths spike by more than 20 percent in 2012, leading the nation with 531 officially killed on the job, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The construction industry led the field with 105 deaths. An ironworker fell to his death on Monday at a construction site in Richardson, where State Farm is building a regional campus.

No one was killed during the accident in Austin on Nov. 8. Both the contractor and subcontractor carry workers' compensation insurance, which is paying for Sanchez Lopez and the other workers to get medical treatment, according to the advocacy group. In many cases, however, employers don’t carry workers' comp, meaning workers and their families are often left with little or no safety net after a workplace injury or death.

Texas is the only state in the nation that does not make it mandatory for employers of a certain size to carry workers' compensation insurance or the equivalent. In many cases, injured workers end up on government assistance.

“It’s a huge cost to our taxpayers,” said Timm of the Workers Defense Project. “It’s a huge cost to our public hospitals who end up picking up those costs when workers are dropped off at the emergency room.” 

Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.

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