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CT undocumented workers say they face challenges while navigating workers' compensation

Overcoming Obstacles, Mr. Joe Chávez Martinez on the right  navigates the complexities of worker's compensation with the support of attorney Amado Vargas, despite immigration challenges.
Maricarmen Cajahuaringa
Connecticut Public
Joe Chávez, right, navigates the complexities of worker's compensation with the support of attorney Amado Vargas, despite immigration challenges.

Undocumented workers grappling with workplace injuries in Connecticut say they find themselves in a predicament when it comes to workers' compensation.

The fear of legal repercussions or even deportation often prevents these workers from reporting workplace injuries to the state, adding a layer of vulnerability to their plight.

Edgar Galarza, an immigrant from Ecuador, recently shared his story after a workplace accident, providing a glimpse into the struggles faced by individuals navigating the complex U.S. health care and compensation systems.

Six months ago, while painting a building with colleagues, Galarza experienced a severe fall that he said was exacerbated due to a lack of safety measures. The incident resulted in significant injuries, and upon reaching the hospital, he said he encountered additional challenges. Medical professionals initially misdiagnosed his injuries, he said, overlooking fractures and torn tendons.

“I was falling from a third floor. When I fell, I saw that my leg was broken, and my shoulder was on my chest,” Galarza said. “The owner of the business never came to see me, nor did he answer my calls."

Galarza expressed frustration at his employer's lack of communication and support, leading to financial strain on his family.

“I had to face a big battle alongside my lawyer to get fair compensation. They said I am undocumented, but I was doing a professional job. I am a human, too, I am seeking the well-being of my family.” Galarza said. “I was just working."

It's a similar storyline for Joe Chavez Martinez, a masonry worker and West Haven resident from Peru. A severe workplace accident led to a fractured leg, and despite prompt medical attention, Chavez says he faced minimal communication from company owners, which prompted him to seek legal representation, highlighting the pervasive challenges undocumented workers face in the aftermath of workplace injuries.

"They saw that my leg broke. After two days, I had surgery,” Chavez Martinez said. “I currently don't work because I'm undergoing [physical] therapy, but my doctor is allowing me to return to work only with lightweight duty."

There are 113,000 undocumented workers in Connecticut, primarily in the construction industry, according to estimates by the Migration Policy Institute.

The latest Connecticut Workers' Compensation Commission report indicates that during the 2022-23 fiscal year, more than 32,000 injuries were formally reported, and 20,380 cases were created. A commission representative said it does not track cases based on a worker's immigration status.

Seeking legal help 

Middletown attorney Amado Vargas shed light on the hardships faced by immigrant workers who are his clients, citing cases like Chavez and Galarza's. Vargas said he has noticed a resistance pattern from insurance companies in these cases.

“I have a large Latino clientele, a good percentage of them who do not have papers, and people don't believe them when they get hurt,” Vargas said. “They're scared to file a worker's compensation case, and when they do file a worker's compensation case, they get treated like dirt.”

Vargas said he addressed a legal dispute for compensation on behalf of Chavez, where he said the employer failed to reinstate him despite a doctor's recommendation for light-duty work.

In Galarza's case, Vargas said the insurance company's omission of marital status recognition resulted in reduced compensation. The insurance company resisted payment during his recovery, he said, attempting to deny temporary benefits based on his legal status.

In recent years, Connecticut's Workers’ Compensation Commission (WCC) has expanded protections for undocumented workers injured at work.

However, a WCC official said in a statement that a worker's immigration status may become an issue if an employee applied for certain temporary partial disability benefits under certain statutes. That's because the statutes require that a person be "ready, willing and able" to work in Connecticut and some interpret the ability to work dependent on immigration status, the WCC said.

An undocumented injured worker may still be eligible for temporary total and/or permanent partial disability benefits, according to the WWC.

Vargas emphasizes the importance of promptly filing a 30 C claim with the Department of Workers' Compensation. He said that according to Connecticut law, all workers, including undocumented workers, have the right to file a claim.

“You have the same rights; do not be scared,” Vargas said.

Whenever undocumented workers get hurt, they should file a claim with the state promptly, he said.

“If you don't file a claim within one year of your accident, you may be time-barred because of status limitations,” Vargas said.

Advocating for legal changes

Vargas is optimistic about engaging Hispanic legislators and initiating discussions at the Capitol to address immigrant workers' challenges. He stressed the urgency of legislative changes to ensure fair treatment, highlighting what he said is the prevalent exploitation of undocumented workers by insurance companies.

“I got to be realistic,” Vargas said. “Will it happen this year, the changes? I don't know.”

“At least it starts the discussion that people are being exploited and being taken advantage of,” Vargas added.

Connecticut State Rep. Antonio Felipe, a member of the Democratic Latino and Puerto Rican Caucus, provided insights into the caucus' initiatives for supporting the undocumented community.

“We understand all the hard work that you put in regardless of if the law sees it that way,” Felipe said in a message to workers.

He couldn't speak for the entire caucus, but Felipe said the caucus could address language justice that could ensure access to Spanish translation for important interactions, voting accessibility, expanding Husky Healthcare, and advocating for streamlining the pathway to U.S. citizenship.

Though not explicitly designed to address workers’ compensation for undocumented workers, he said the initiatives underscore a commitment to addressing the diverse challenges immigrant workers encounter in Connecticut.

He said there’s a need to prioritize help for the state's undocumented residents.

“The contributions that are made from the undocumented community in terms of taxes, in terms of hard work, they've given us so much,” Felipe said. “We need to start giving something back.”

Maricarmen Cajahuaringa is a journalist with extensive experience in Latino communities' politics, social issues, and culture. She founded Boceto Media, a digital Spanish-language newspaper based in Connecticut. Maricarmen holds a Bachelor's in Social Work from Springfield College, and a Master's in Journalism and Media Production from Sacred Heart University. As a reporter for Connecticut Public, she is dedicated to delivering accurate and informative coverage of the Hispanic/Latino population in the region. Maricarmen is an experienced and passionate journalist who strives to bring a voice to the stories of her community.

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