Workers’ comp agency urged to speed handling of claims
Two dozen immigrant workers and their advocates packed into a small downtown hearing room Wednesday to urge a state agency to speed the handling of workers’ compensation claims and press employers to meet their obligations.
Rubilio Grijalva was one of several injured workers to speak at the hearing of the Department of Industrial Accidents on amendments to its regulations. He said he was working for a Chelsea fruit-packing company when he was injured by a pallet-lifting machine. After telling his boss he went to the doctor and needed more care for his back, he said, he was fired.
“I don’t know what to do,’’ said Grijalva, 44. “I’ve got a family to support.”
The other workers who testified were in construction, and had suffered falls, broken bones, gashes requiring stitches, and hearing loss from a head injury. All described having to wait six months and longer to get workers’ compensation approvals — usually because their bosses would not own up to their injuries on the job.
In an investigation published Sunday, the Globe reported that the region’s construction industry relies heavily on immigrant workers, many of them undocumented. By law, contractors must provide workers’ compensation coverage for the workers on their site. But many skirt the law to save on costs, or pressure workers not to report accidents.
Thomas Smith, executive director of the Boston nonprofit Justice at Work, said at the hearing that Grijalva’s employer “is denying what happened.”
Typically with workers’ comp, an employer files a claim, reporting that a worker has been hurt on the job. But if the employer doesn’t report an accident, the worker has to file a claim, or have a lawyer do it. As part of the claim, the employee must prove he worked for the company, with pay stubs or other records.
Cases where the sides can’t come to an agreement go before an administrative judge in the Department of Industrial Accidents. If the employer didn’t have workers’ compensation, claims go to a state trust fund.
Isidoro Peralta, a roofer whose story was detailed in the Globe report, appeared at the hearing. It took nearly a year-and-a-half for him to get surgery for a broken collarbone that healed wrong after he fell from a house. His employer had denied he was injured in a fall from a 32-foot ladder.
“I’m here to represent my friends,’’ he said through a translator, because it can take so long to get a claim approved. “It’s really hard here for the Latino community to work and survive.”
Omar Hernandez, senior judge at the department, who presided at the hearing Wednesday, urged workers after the session was completed to make sure they hire lawyers who specialize in workers’ compensation — or risk disappointing outcomes.
He said that in the five years he’s been in his role, he has worked to decrease the wait for hearing times from five or six months to two or three months.
The public comment period on proposed updates to the regulations ends Sept. 28.