An undocumented construction worker who was turned over to deportation agents by his employer after reporting a workplace injury has been awarded $650,000 in compensatory and punitive damages by a federal jury. The Boston Globe reports that jurors deliberated for four hours before returning with a unanimous decision in favor of José Martin Paz Flores. The Department of Labor had sued the employer, Tara Construction Inc. and CEO Pedro Pirez, following an Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation.
“It’s a victory after a long, long fight,” Paz Flores told The Boston Globe through an interpreter. “When workers go through difficult situations like this one they can’t stay silent.”
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“The lawsuit alleged that defendants initiated a law enforcement investigation and facilitated the employee’s detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after the employee reported a serious injury and caused OSHA to open a rapid response investigation,” the Labor Department said in a release.
The Boston Globe reports that Paz Flores had been seriously injured after falling off a ladder in March 2017, breaking his leg and requiring immediate surgery. He was recovering from this surgery when he was told to come in to pick up a check. But when he arrived, he was detained by ICE agents in front of his toddler.
“During opening statements at trial, Labor Department attorney Suzanne Reilly told jurors that Tara Construction orchestrated Paz’s arrest in an effort to have him deported because it had let its workers compensation insurance lapse and didn’t want to pay him while he was recovering from his injuries,” the report continued. The report said that Pirez asked a relative who is a police officer to dig into the worker, eventually leading to his detention.
“The Occupational Safety and Health Act protects the rights of all workers, and—as we did here—we will pursue significant punitive damages when necessary to punish and deter those who violate workers’ rights,” said Regional Solicitor of Labor Maia Fisher. She said “that it is not only unlawful, but also costly, to retaliate.”
Back in 2018, Daily Kos’ Laura Clawson noted a rise in employers wielding deportation agents against immigrant workers, “in retaliation for fighting for better working conditions or even just to be paid the wages they’re owed.” But it hasn’t been isolated to solely workplaces. Abusers have weaponized ICE against their partners. In Illinois, a landlord is facing a lawsuit after threatening to report immigrant tenants to officials.
Unfortunately, many workers just trying to provide for themselves and their families have been deported as a result of retaliatory actions. The massive ICE raids that targeted Mississippi food plants in 2019 came after Koch Foods had settled a multimillion dollar racial discrimination and sexual harassment settlement.
More than 230 workers were deported, and hundreds of others who remained in the U.S. were still struggling two years after the raids. “The nearly 700 people who were arrested were, in many cases, the only economic support for their families,” Mississippi Center for Justice said last year. “Of the people who have been released, most have ankle bracelets and cannot leave to work.” No high-level poultry corporation executive ever faced charges.
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