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Some subcontractors are reportedly dodging worker's comp claims by dumping injured undocumented construction workers at local emergency rooms.
Some subcontractors are reportedly dodging worker's comp claims by dumping injured undocumented construction workers at local emergency rooms.
By David O. Williams 
Vail Valley construction boom comes with high cost; contractors ducking comp for injured workers
Local hospitals dealing with injured undocumented workers who should file comp claims
By David O. Williams

August 7, 2008 — There’s a dirty little secret in the Colorado mountains, where high-dollar hotel projects continue to sprout like mushrooms, trophy homes keep cropping up on the forested ski slopes and construction workers are still in high demand.

It’s no secret that many of those workers are undocumented. But a crisis that’s rarely discussed, according to some advocates, attorneys and even contractors, is the evasion of workers' compensation laws by some subcontractors who dump injured workers at emergency rooms to avoid claims and premium increases.

Subcontractors often tell illegal-immigrant laborers they’ll be deported if they pursue a claim, and it’s sometimes implied they’ll have a hard time finding more work if they file.

“These are workers – even documented ones – who don’t want to make waves, and they go along with what the employer tells them to because they’re feeling like they’re jeopardizing their jobs if they demand that proper procedures are followed,” said Patricia Medige, senior attorney with Colorado Legal Services.

State law mandates that any subcontractor on a job site must provide workers' compensation insurance for his employees and proof of that insurance to the general contractor, no matter the immigration status of the employee.

The Colorado Division of Workers’ Compensation oversees a system that insures workers for on-the-job injuries, covering medical bills, lost wage, rehabilitation costs and even death benefits. Rates vary widely depending on the type of work and the deductible.

For more than a decade Medige specialized in migrant farm worker issues, but since 2006 she’s traveled the state doing presentations to a variety of organizations on a wide range of labor issues. Abuses in the construction industry are an increasingly hot topic, Medige said.

“One of my trainings was for the staff at a mountain indigent care facility, and of all the worker’s rights issues I was talking to them about, that was absolutely No. 1: What can we do about employers who are dodging the comp system and sending their workers to us and sidestepping the whole system?”

One subcontractor in Vail who asked to remain anonymous because of possible repercussions from employers said big jobs, such as the Ritz-Carlton Residences and Four Seasons hotel project that are part of Vail’s multibillion-dollar redevelopment, are closely audited and therefore not the scene of too much abuse. Trophy homes in isolated areas are a different story.

“The residential jobs are terrible,” the subcontractor said. “You get the guy who’s a sub of a sub of a sub of a sub and there’s no way he has worker’s comp insurance for him or any of his guys. You get one guy with a green card who’s the jefe [boss], and he has 10 guys working under him and he just distributes the cash. They’re not going to file [workers' comp] claims.”

Unless an injury is truly catastrophic, most subs will avoid workers' comp claims at all costs, the subcontractor said.

“I don’t even file claims if I can avoid it. I’d rather take a guy to the emergency room and pay $900 cash or whatever to have his hand stitched up. The paperwork and the time lost, because then he can’t work, it’s brutal.”

Suzanne Hoffman-LeBlanc, an Edwards attorney who recently helped an undocumented worker successfully file and collect on a workers' comp claim, said the burden placed on already stressed rural health care facilities and, by default, the taxpayer is unacceptable.

Doctors and hospitals are being stuck with sometimes five-figure bills they can’t collect from undocumented workers, when in fact it’s a compensable claim that goes unfiled to avoid rate hikes or the cost of more extensive long-term care, Hoffman-LeBlanc said.

One of her recent clients traveled to Denver to file a claim with the Colorado Division of Labor, but only with the help of community members who knew the law and helped him with the process.

Then Hoffman-LeBlanc served as an intermediary between the hospital and the insurance company to get the claim processed. She declined to name the man because of attorney-client privilege, and said he was too fearful of deportation or losing work to talk to a reporter.

“He’s a hard-working guy, he’s been here and he wants to remain here, and our economy relies on him,” Hoffman-LeBlanc said. “It doesn’t matter on which side of the fence you fall with regard to the undocumented worker issue – whether they should be here or not – our economy relies on them.”

She added that building a posh resort area on the backs of immigrant labor, then shunting them off to the ER if they’re hurt, carries societal costs far beyond the added tax burden shouldered by indigent care.

“If we’re developing the valley at the cost of human life, then doesn’t it make this all kind of a sham?” she said. “To build a place where people come to relax and escape the stress of their daily lives when in fact the creation of that environment is causing such misery and economic difficulty on the health care system?”

This is the first in a series of stories looking at workers' compensation abuses in the Colorado construction industry.



Comment on article  5 Comments on "Vail Valley construction boom comes with high cost; contractors ducking comp for injured workers "


Mike — August 8, 2008

Well this report is rich. A foreigner come to the U.S. is given the privilege to work here (green card). What does he do with it?
1. Operates as a contractor and hires illegal aliens.
2. Does not pay Workman's Comp. Ins.
3. More than likely is not paying taxes.
4. His workers are driving around with no drivers license or auto Ins.
5. His workers are likely getting food stamps.
6. The local hospitals are picking up the tab for work related injuries. (higher taxes to cover this)
7. The local hospitals are picking up the tab for non work related medical care. (higher Ins. premiums to cover this))
8. The builder is laughing all the way to the bank.

You people are stupid and deserved to be raped.


Sam — August 8, 2008

In addition to Mike's comments, the contractors are not reporting the injuries to OSHA; why would they when they don't understand, or care to understand, due process. How and why does this continue...payoffs to regulators???


Gail Owens — August 8, 2008

Hi Gail,

Interesting article about the use of immigrants in the housing and building construction field in Colorado. Gail


Robert Hill — August 8, 2008

Years ago I worked as a workers' compensation claims adjuster and had a death claim involving a day-laborer who fell through the roof of a warehouse, 25 feet to a concrete floor. He could have been helped by a well-respected trauma center nearby, but his boss unbelievably did not call an ambulence. Instead he drove the dying man 45 minutes to another trauma center, far from the worksite. Bleeding from the ears, his last words were, "please take me to my family."

No one wants to pay more than they have to for anything, so costs get "externalized," as the economists say. Hummer drivers and nicotine adicts externalize the cost of their smoke. In this case, the fair cost associated with the risk of the work is being externalized and borne by others. Mike's comments reflect a lack of reflection. As a society we want to have our cake and to eat it, too. We complain when it suits us. Let's be honest: we're all hypocrits.


Hugo — August 8, 2008

What article are you reading? Are you uninformed of the law or just plain ignorant? The general contractor is responsible for all work under him, including monitoring all of the sub contractors. Ignorance is not an excuse for an abuse of the rules, policy, laws and regulations in the Workers Compensation Insurance field and/or that of the local, state and federal construction laws and regulations.

Are you ignorant or just racist? From your well thought out response, it appears the later.

I currently work for a workers comp firm, and from the information provided' in the article, it appears that criminal as well as civil penalties should be applied to the General contractor and the Subs. As for your comments that local hospitals are picking up the tab for work related injuries. (Higher taxes to cover this). This goes back to the general contractor and the subcontractor who should be taken to court to recoup the cost of work related injury. The cost for the work related injury should be covered under the workers comp insurance required of ALL employers, General contractor and subs.

Regarding your comment about the local hospitals picking up the tab for non-work related medical care. (higher Ins. premiums to cover this) What evidence do you have of this? And how does this relate to the article? This definitely tells me a whole lot about your character.

The builder is laughing all the way to the bank. So is everyone about you, after reading your ignorant laced diatribe.



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