Wanted: A Wise Latina

Rena Steinzor

July 23, 2009

This post is co-written by CPR President Rena Steinzor and Policy Analyst Matt Shudtz.

Just as the traditional media finished a breathless cycle of reporting on how prospective Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor had renounced her claim that a “wise Latina” would make different decisions than a white man, an article in USA Today reminded us of the need for many more wise Latinas in the corridors of power in Washington. According to data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workplace deaths of Hispanics have increased by 76 percent since 1992, even though total fatalities in all jobs nationwide dropped by almost 10 percent.

What explains these tragic figures? Admittedly, there are simply more Hispanic workers in the United States today.

And the jobs involved are the meanest and the dirtiest. In 2003, 42 percent of workers in the meat and poultry industry, which includes dangerous meatpacking jobs, were Hispanic. These jobs also attract undocumented immigrants with few other options for employment. Twenty-six percent of workers in the meat and poultry industry were foreign-born noncitizens in 2003. BLS data show that other dangerous industries such as construction, transportation and warehousing, natural resources and mining, and agriculture are where the most Hispanic workers are dying on the job. And, while companies are required to provide employees with safety training, they often fail to make adequate efforts to deal with language barriers. OSHA has some materials available online in Spanish, but workers laboring for a subsistence wage are unlikely to look these instructions up on their Blackberries from the job site. Undocumented workers are far less likely to complain to federal and state officials about job dangers, further isolating them from outside intervention to correct workplace hazards.

Under the leadership of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis—a wise Latina if there ever was one--the Obama Administration is beginning to address these problems. The President’s FY 2010 budget requested $564 million for OSHA, which is $51 million, or 10 percent more than that agency received in FY 2009. This funding will pay for 160 new enforcement staff, many of whom will be bilingual. Overall, the Department of Labor expects to hire nearly 1,000 new employees, restoring worker protection staffing to FY 2001 levels. Unfortunately, however, this comparison omits the depressing context that OSHA funding has remained essentially flat in constant dollars since the agency was created in the early 1970’s. A strong trend away from heavy manufacturing and toward safer service industry jobs has translated into a steady reduction of workplace injuries and deaths despite OSHA’s steadily weakening capacity to enforce the law. Hispanic workers have not benefited as much as the average worker in terms of decrease in fatality rate.

More worksite inspections would be helpful, but the tangled management structure of myriad subcontractors and general contractors too often confounds OSHA’s ability to target the right corporate entity with a citation for unsafe work conditions. Thankfully, that job was made somewhat easier by a recent Eighth Circuit decision upholding OSHA’s “multi-employer worksite policy” for the construction industry. The policy said that a general contractor could be cited for a violation even if the workers involved were employed by a subcontractor, so long as the general contractor knew about the hazard and could have corrected it.

The USA Today article includes a quote from the sister of a man who was killed on the job, likely because of a lack of training and proper equipment:

“It’s an injustice how my brother died,” Marta Puerto said. “There are a lot of cases like this, not just my brother’s. We need better laws to protect Hispanics.”

OSHA is obviously aware of the need to focus enforcement on Hispanic workers. A recent article in the Texas Observer reported that the agency provided a $190,000 grant to the Hispanic Contractors Association de Tejas to teach Spanish-language safety courses to contractors and firemen. But OSHA obviously needs to do more to reach out to workers who think they have to trade their safety for their job security. Stories about workers who don’t demand a safe workplace for fear of losing their jobs or being turned in to immigration authorities are ubiquitous. Perhaps if OSHA’s “compliance assistance” programs better emphasized workers’ rights over employer liability we would see fatality rates for Hispanic workers follow the trends of all other workers in the United States.

We can only hope that Sotomayor’s inadvertent offer of a golden opportunity for Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and other right-wing Republicans to further alienate the rising number of Hispanic voters could result in political changes that will give President Obama and his Labor Secretary even more support in their efforts to address these problems sooner rather than later. The beauty of American politics, after all, is that what goes around so often comes back around—for worse and for better.


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