Philly's unregulated 'underground economy' is ripe for tragedy

Posted: August 27, 2014

JOSE DAVID ORTEGA of Camden liked to work with his hands.

In July, Ortega and two other men, all three of them day laborers, were razing a defunct Blockbuster in Cherry Hill.

A wall collapsed on Ortega, killing him, said his mom, Odily Castro. When she buried her son a week later, she said, the expense was shouldered entirely by the family.

That's because Ortega, 40, a father of two, was an undocumented immigrant brought to the U.S. in the '80s by his mother, who was granted political asylum after fleeing the Contras in Nicaragua.

Ortega's story embodies the plight of day laborers, who experts say make up an "underground economy" that is being exploited.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that the number of foreign-born workers killed on job sites in the Philadelphia area (which includes parts of South Jersey, Delaware and Maryland) has spiked in recent years. Some victims are undocumented day laborers who sacrifice safety for a salary.

'Like the Wild West'

When someone is killed at a job site, the worker's employer is required to contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which investigates the factors that led to the death.

If violations of OSHA's standards are found, the authority issues citations, which are handled in civil court, according to Nicholas DeJesse, head of the local OSHA office.

Criminal charges are rare and usually follow the discovery that a company "willfully ignored" federal standards.

That can be difficult to prove: DeJesse couldn't recall any willful violations in cases involving day laborers in the past two years.

Barbara Rahke knows the plight of day laborers all too well.

As director of the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health, Rahke organizes outreach programs and tracks down information about workers maimed or killed on the job.

"It's really sort of like the Wild West," she said. "We're dealing with an industry that's very difficult to stay on top of."

Undocumented immigrants stand in groups at area stores waiting to be selected for work. They are drawn to day labor for obvious reasons, Rahke said.

"If you're new to the area, you don't have access to the informal networks that provide most construction jobs," she said. "Standing in front of these stores is sometimes the most efficient way to get work.

"The result is a large underground economy that hires a lot of people."

"Underground" usually means not providing proper safety equipment or training.

Sometimes, said Rahke, it's as simple as pointing to the tools and saying, "Go to work."

The reason these employers hire undocumented workers is also obvious.

"If a worker tries to exercise his rights, the employer can hold [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] over their heads," Rahke said. "And if someone is killed on the job, his family goes underground; they're scared, and they don't want to be found."

But an undocumented worker is entitled to the same rights as his or her American-born colleagues.

"Otherwise, there would be even more incentive to say, 'Oh, I'm hiring someone who's undocumented, so I can pay them whatever I want,' " Rahke said.

The tricky part is exercising those rights.

Fight for your right

Employers must have insurance, said Todd Lasky, a lawyer with the Center City firm Zavodnick, Zavodnick & Lasky, which specializes in workers' compensation cases.

In the event of a workplace injury, the policy helps pay for medical bills and other expenses. If someone dies, it provides "dependency benefits" to the worker's spouse and children.

How much those benefits offer depends on the wages paid to the worker.

"When it comes to that, your status as undocumented really is irrelevant," Lasky said.

For day laborers, the best-case scenario is that the employer pays for medical bills or other expenses out-of-pocket. The worst case is that the employer denies ever hiring them.

And without a solid paper trail, proving employment becomes almost impossible.

"Someone gets picked up at Home Depot, gets paid in cash, doesn't know the company's name and doesn't have contact info for his co-workers - how do you prove anything?" Lasky said.

In successful cases, the workers piece together scraps of information: a number painted on the side of the truck, a first name remembered in passing, a T-shirt bearing the contractor's logo.

More often than not, however, the cases are uphill battles with little recourse for the worker's family.

That's why Lasky and his office are joining other labor advocates in teaching workers what they are entitled to before their boots even touch the dirt on a work site.

'No one has to . . . die'

Every morning, the parking lot of the Home Depot on Roosevelt Boulevard near Langdon Street in Crescentville is an open-air market for day laborers.

Men in paint- and dust-stained jeans mill about, converging on cars as they pass by.

On a recent morning, amid this chaos, a handful of workers learned how not to fall off a roof.

Hillary Blecker, a trainer for PhilaPOSH, held a session with the day laborers on safety harnesses. It allowed the attendees to try on the harnesses required on roofing jobs.

The session's other tool was much smaller: business cards that, alongside contact information for the local OSHA office, warn workers, "No one has to hurt themselves or die for pay."

Natalia Nicastro, an organizer for the Philadelphia Workers Association, said that message can't be stressed enough.

Nicastro's organization formed last year, after the workers outside Home Depot encountered increasing resistance from the store's manager.

"People don't realize that [undocumented workers] are escaping from bad situations in home countries and trying to survive here and find honest jobs," she said.

"It's not that they are not willing to work with the legal process; it's that they don't have the opportunity. It would be better for everyone if they did."

- Staff photographer C.F. Sanchez contributed to this report.


On Twitter: @Vellastrations

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