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Injured Worker's Ex-Employer Denies Retaliation

UPDATED: A 19-year-old Honduran injured on the job is at the center of a workplace safety controversy. The Workers Defense Project says he was fired for speaking to investigators. His former employer says the firing was unrelated.

The Workers Defense Project and Iron Workers Union organized a demonstration Nov. 23, 2013.

* Correction appended

Updated, Monday, Nov. 25, 4 p.m.:

The former employer of a Honduran man injured on the job in Austin is disputing allegations that he was the victim of whistleblower retaliation.

Wilmer Lopez Sanchez, 19, was injured on Nov. 8, when a load of reinforcing steel fell from a crane at an apartment project in downtown Austin. The Workers Defense Project, on behalf of Lopez Sanchez, told reporters this weekend he was terminated on Nov. 20, a day after speaking with federal authorities about the accident.

The nonprofit advocacy group said Lopez Sanchez was fired in retaliation for speaking with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or OSHA, and is pressing for a federal whistleblower investigation. 

On Monday, the worker’s former employer, Capform Inc. of Carrollton, agreed that Lopez Sanchez ceased working for the company the day after he spoke with OSHA. Capform Vice President Jim Renaud said Lopez Sanchez was not fired, but instead resigned after allegations were raised by two co-workers about “inappropriate behavior” on the job. He declined to elaborate.

Renaud said the allegations against the injured employee were first raised on Nov. 15, a week after the accident, but four days before Lopez Sanchez spoke with an OSHA investigator. Renaud said the Lopez Sanchez had been working as a laborer for Capform since July.

“We discussed it with him. He at first denied and then admitted it, and said he wanted to quit,” Renaud said. Renaud added that workers at his company are not discouraged from speaking to OSHA.

“Any of my employees have the right to talk to OSHA,” he said. “We cooperate with OSHA on all their investigations.”

The workers group denies the company’s version of events. Workers Defense Project political director Gregorio Casar said his group is still asking the company to give Lopez Sanchez his job back and to “offer an apology for having terminated him the day after he spoke with workplace investigators.” 

Original story, Saturday, Nov. 23:

Hoping to bring attention to the plight of workers who are hurt or killed at construction sites in Texas, protesters converged Saturday on a high-rise apartment project in Austin where they say an injured worker got fired after reporting the accident to federal authorities. 

Chanting in English and Spanish, the protesters demanded that the migrant worker, 19-year-old Wilmer Lopez Sanchez of Honduras, be reinstated. They also called for more protections for workers in Texas, where pro-business laws and the lack of burdensome regulations are often cited as key pillars of the strong economy. 

“While we’re out there touting this Texas miracle, Texas is being built on the backs of workers who are injured, even killed on the job, or are considered replaceable or disposable by their employers,” said Emily Timm, deputy director of the Workers Defense Project, which organized the protest. “This is just not a sustainable way for us to build our state.”

More than two dozen protesters from the group marched to the construction site in downtown Austin and criticized the contractors for what they said was an improper firing.

Lopez Sanchez was hit in the back by a piece of reinforcing steel, known as rebar, when a load of the rods fell from a crane on Nov. 8 at the 7 Rio project, a high-rise apartment project at Seventh and Rio Grande streets in Austin, according to the Workers Defense Project. At least two other workers sustained injuries, the group said.

Lopez Sanchez, a member of the nonprofit worker advocacy group, informed the organization of his accident and was told to seek medical attention. He was treated in a clinic designated by his employer, concrete contractor Capform Inc. of Carrollton, said Gregorio Casar, political director of the Workers Defense Project.

The group, on behalf of Lopez Sanchez, then called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, the federal agency that oversees workplace accidents and deaths. Casar said OSHA had not been notified about the accident by Lopez Sanchez's employer or by the general contractor, J.E. Dunn.

OSHA "didn’t know about it until we told them,” Casar said.

Lopez Sanchez met with representatives of OSHA on Nov. 19. Capform fired him the next day, Casar said.

A call to Capform’s Austin phone number produced a busy signal all afternoon Saturday, and a message left on the voicemail at the company’s corporate headquarters in Carrollton was not returned.

Representatives of J.E. Dunn, which posted a sign outside the 7 Rio project saying its job site was “recognized for safety excellence” by OSHA, did not return phone calls or email messages Saturday.

Messages left at OSHA’s Austin and Dallas offices were not returned. 

The Workers Defense Project is pressing OSHA to investigate the accident as a whistleblower retaliation case. Federal law prohibits discrimination against employees for reporting safety violations. The group said federal intervention is needed because state law doesn’t make it illegal to fire whistleblowers, whose actions can help prevent future accidents or deaths by calling attention to unsafe working conditions.

While worker deaths declined nationally last year, Texas saw worker deaths spike by more than 20 percent in 2012, leading the nation with 531 officially killed on the job, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The construction industry led the field with 105 deaths. An ironworker fell to his death on Monday at a construction site in Richardson, where State Farm is building a regional campus.

No one was killed during the accident in Austin on Nov. 8. Both the contractor and subcontractor carry workers' compensation insurance, which is paying for Lopez Sanchez and the other workers to get medical treatment, according to the advocacy group. In many cases, however, employers don’t carry workers' comp, meaning workers and their families are often left with little or no safety net after a workplace injury or death.

Texas is the only state in the nation that does not make it mandatory for employers of a certain size to carry workers' compensation insurance or the equivalent. In many cases, injured workers end up on government assistance.

“It’s a huge cost to our taxpayers,” said Timm of the Workers Defense Project. “It’s a huge cost to our public hospitals who end up picking up those costs when workers are dropped off at the emergency room.” 

Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.

* An earlier version of this story reported the worker's surnames in the wrong order. His name is Wilmer Lopez Sanchez.

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