María E. Gutiérrez, Interfaith Worker Justice: 10 Suggestions for Making Workers’ Compensation Reform More Significant for the Broader Advocacy Community

Every time I present trainings on workplace health and safety for low-wage and immigrant workers, at least one worker in the room has questions regarding his or her own work-related injury. As sad as it sounds, it is not surprising to learn that low-wage and immigrant workers are usually exposed to the most hazardous workplaces and employed under irregular and irresponsible conditions. Although I’m confident in my ability to teach workers what a safe workplace should look like and help them develop strategies to fight for safer workplaces, far too many employers avoid their legal and moral responsibilities of providing a safe and healthy workplace, including workers’ compensation insurance.

A year or so ago, there was a huge exposé in the Chicago Tribune about a young immigrant worker who fell off a roof and became a paraplegic. He ended up at Advocate, a faith based hospital, requiring special medical care. His friends visited him regularly. It was a very expensive care and no one would cover the bills. In the middle of the night, Advocate flew him to Mexico against his will where he was left in a hospital with totally inadequate facilities. Chicagoans were outraged. This story was major news for several days. Never once did the coverage mention the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or workers’ compensation. OSHA clearly had not protected this roofer. The employer did not have workers’ comp.  Neither the reporter, nor the worker, nor his friends understood that he should have been covered by workers’ comp.  When Kim Bobo, the director of Interfaith Worker Justice, called the reporter, she explained to Ms. Bobo that she knew nothing about workers’ comp and that it never occurred to her to cover that part of the story.

Reporters don’t know about workers’ compensation laws and the role of OSHA. Religious leaders don’t know. Low wage workers don’t know. The workers’ compensation “system” is failing workers. Despite its importance to workers, especially low-wage workers, many advocates are clueless about the existence and importance of workers’ comp.

Following are ten suggestions from Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) for making workers’ compensation reform more significant for the broader advocacy community.

1. Think about language. The language advocates use is similar to that of attorneys. We need to use terms that encompass the feelings of the abused worker. For decades, labor attorneys railed about violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Then, worker centers and Ms. Bobo’s book began talking about “Wage Theft”, a stronger term which reflects the feelings of the robbed worker and moves leaders to fight against unethical and unscrupulous practices. Let’s start talking about “Disposable Workers Policies”, “Worker Abandonment Policies”, “Dispose-your-Worker Employers”, “Bandit Companies”, or “Keep-Workers-Safe Employers” vs. “Not-my-Responsibility Employers”. Be creative in using clear and compelling language.

2. Connect with Payroll Fraud Campaigns.  Cheating workers out of workers’ compensation is clearly a significant component of payroll fraud (a better way to describe “misclassification”).   There are many states where building trade unions are leading campaigns against payroll fraud.  The broader advocacy community, including worker centers, COSH groups, and other community groups and social justice organizations as well as attorneys, should actively engage in payroll fraud campaigns.

3. Build relationships with religious communities. Invite religious leaders to statewide campaigns. Organize or offer to talk during Labor In the Pulpit, an annual IWJ campaign for Labor Day, in which congregations across the country highlight worker issues in each congregation or community by connecting members and workers to the Sunday sermons. Ask workers about their pastors and visit them or invite them to support workers when they go to court.

4. Build connections with worker centers and non-traditional workers. There are more than 200 worker centers in the U.S., 27 of which are affiliated with IWJ. Advocate for them and use their capacity for campaigns and actions.

5. Consider using the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).  The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects workers who engage in collective action. For example, if two or more workers complain to their boss about workplace dangers and experience retaliation, they are protected by law.  Historically, NLRB, which enforces the NLRA, has been viewed as an institution for unions.  But in fact, it can and wants to do more to protect workers without unions.   Workers, their workers’ compensation attorneys, and worker advocates should explore the option of filing charges with the NLRB if workers experience retaliation for reporting hazardous work conditions.

6. Lead advocacy with OSHA and MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration). Help workers file complaints with OSHA and MSHA. Organize meetings with the staff of both agencies. It is urgent to target egregious industries.  Work with and push both agencies to focus on industries that harm and endanger workers.

7. Create your own Workers’ Comp Commission. Engage academics, religious leaders, and ethical business leaders in reviewing your state policies.   The Commission could issue a report, hold hearings around the state, meet with legislators and begin creating its own “buzz” about real workers’ compensation reform.

8. Be a front-line advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.  Being a strong and public advocate for immigration reform is both the right thing to do and a great way to build relationships, especially with the religious community.

9. Connect research with action.  The workers’ compensation advocacy community and members of our health and safety network really know the issues.  WILG and other advocacy groups put out great reports, but often they don’t reach the general public.  Consider ways to reach more people through press events and public activities.

10. Connect with Interfaith Worker Justice. We can exchange brochures and materials. Visit our website, send us e-mails, and follow us on twitter and facebook. Let us know about your actions and campaigns. Support our actions and campaigns.   Join IWJ in advocating for an increase in the minimum wage, paid sick days and an end to wage theft.

This blog post is an adaptation of Kim Bobo’s speech at the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group (WILG) meeting in July, 2012 held at Chicago, IL. During her talk, Ms Bobo also praised WILG efforts and acknowledged the value of IWJ-WILG partnership in seeking justice for workers.  Thanks to all individuals, groups, and organizations that keep alive the struggle for worker justice!

María E. Gutiérrez author of this blog is the  National Occupational Health and Safety Coordinator at Interfaith Worker Justice ()