Earlier this week, as reported in the Portland Press Herald, Guillermo and Hector Fuentes pled guilty to federal charges revolving around their actions from 2006 to 2011 assisting undocumented workers in obtaining fraudulent green and social security cards, as well as hiring them to work at their restaurants in Westbrook, Waterville, and Biddeford. During the first trial, several of the workers testified that they were forced to work seven days a week for more than 12-hour shifts with only one two-hour break, and servers were not paid an hourly wage but only allowed to keep their tips.
Unfortunately, these wage violations are increasingly common among the undocumented worker community. Fearful of retaliation by employers, undocumented workers often do not report these egregious employment violations.
An employee’s immigration status affects whether or not they choose to report wrongful employment practices or workplace injuries. As an attorney representing employees injured at work, I believe that employers who use undocumented workers are less concerned with safety in the workplace and, more often than not, these workers remain silent regarding work injuries for fear of deportation or jail time. Although the number is difficult to determine exactly, a recent article estimated that there are 8 million undocumented workers in this country, which comprise roughly 6% of the total civilian workforce. The same article projected that undocumented workers sustain one out of every ten work injuries. While the majority of states have determined that undocumented workers are legally entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, the path to obtaining those benefits exposes the worker to criminal prosecution or deportation.
Although agriculture is one of the most hazardous industries, there are exceptions under Maine law that allow certain agricultural employers to go without workers’ compensation coverage. The agriculture industry employs a substantial percentage of the undocumented workers in this country. Without workers’ compensation insurance, these undocumented workers are left without medical or weekly benefits in the event they experience a work injury.
It’s time that all workers in Maine be treated fairly and equally and we should insist that agricultural employers obtain workers’ compensation insurance.
About the author: Katherine Gatti is an attorney at the workers’ rights law firm, McTeague Higbee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 207-725-5581.