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Workers’ rights groups are connecting a federal worker safety inspection to an immigration raid at an Ohio company—which may make it more difficult for undocumented workers to come forward about workplace safety issues.
Earlier this month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Ohio raided Fresh Mark Inc. meat processing plants in Canton, Massillon, and Salem. The raids led to the arrest of 146 workers, all of whom were suspected of being in the country illegally. Two weeks prior, the company was issued 13 citations and a $211,194 fine after a worker was killed by a meat-skinning machine in December.
OSHA inspections began after the employee got his leg caught in an operating auger at the Canton plant, amputating the leg and killing him Dec. 16, 2017. The worker, according to the coroner’s report, was a Guatemalan national who was set to be deported.
The largest fine, for the only repeat violation in the citations, was from Fresh Mark failing to provide proper guards for the auger, OSHA said. Such guards might have prevented the accident.
Less than two weeks later, the ICE raids began.
From the meatpacking industry to farming, undocumented workers experience dangerous work conditions and are more commonly faced with the pressure to be silent about workplace hazards and accidents because of their immigration status, advocates and attorneys told Bloomberg Environment.
“This sends a strong signal for workers not to speak up,” said Debbie Berkowitz, worker health and safety program director with the National Employment Law Project, told Bloomberg Environment.
Representatives from Massillon, Ohio-based Fresh Mark and ICE didn’t respond to Bloomberg Environment requests for comment.
Foreign-born workers, including those who may be documented, make up just 15 percent of the labor force but account for 18 percent of all workplace fatalities, according to a November 2009 Population Reference Bureau study.
Jim Tom Haynes, an immigration attorney at Haynes Novick Immigration in Washington who represents businesses, said he’s not sure about the correlation between ICE raids and OSHA inspections.
Businesses are under increasing pressure to comply with immigration employment laws to avoid facing large fines, he said.
“Businesses are concerned about having I-9s in order—because the consequences are pretty severe,” Haynes said. Form I-9 is used by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for verifying the identities and employment authorization of people hired for employment within the U.S.
In January 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security to take a more active role in deporting undocumented immigrants.
“If ICE comes in to look at the I-9 and they’re not in order, there’s a penalty for every I-9 that’s done incorrectly,” he added. The penalty for each unverified worker can be as much as a $2,500 fine for each of those employees.
“We see some very large penalties in order to settle cases,” Haynes said. “The larger businesses really can’t afford to ignore all the legalities of the I-9 process.”
But employers are desperate for workers who can do the work, Haynes said.
The workers at Fresh Mark are represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Chelsea Connor, a spokeswoman for the union, told Bloomberg Environment she has found no connection between the OSHA violations and the ICE raid.
“The company in fact was using the Government E-verify system at the time the raid was conducted,” she said in an email.
Almost every state, either explicitly or implicitly, includes undocumented workers in their workers’ compensation statutes.
There are specific agency or court decisions in 36 states, plus the District of Columbia consider undocumented workers as employees that can receive workers’ compensation, according to OSHA. Section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who report injuries or illnesses.
But “many of those workers are too afraid of retaliation to challenge unfair or dangerous illegal conduct,” Bruce Goldstein, president of the advocacy group Farmworker Justice in Washington, told Bloomberg Environment. “They’re generally too afraid to go to a government agency to report illegal or dangerous practices by their employers. They’re usually to afraid to even go to a lawyer to help them.”
“Immigration enforcement has instilled tremendous fear in undocumented workers and their families,” Goldstein said. The nonprofit’s mission is to empower seasonal farm workers in safety and wage issues.
—With assistance from Alex Ebert.
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