As state and federal authorities continue their investigations of the company that employed a teenager who was killed in a mulching machine last month, day laborers and their advocates around the region are increasing demands for more training and better safeguards.
"This case really illustrates a much, much larger problem, where often very young workers are put around very dangerous machinery and are not given the proper training or proper protection," lawyer W. Steven Smitson said.
Smitson directs the Employment Rights Project of Casa of Maryland and testified last month before Congress on the subject. "Employers are literally getting away with murder and sending the wrong message to employees, other employers and the general public -- that immigrant workers are part of a disposable workforce," he told a congressional subcommittee.
After the mulcher incident in Montgomery County, he reprised those comments: "This is exactly what we were talking about. Foreign-born workers have an 80 percent higher chance of being killed on the job than U.S.-born workers."
He includes Michael Francisco Barrios, the youth killed by the mulching machine, in that group because, although the teen was born in Los Angeles, he soon moved back to his mother's native country of Guatemala and lived there until moving to Wheaton in December.
The morning after Barrios' death, jornaleros, or day laborers, in paint-splattered jeans raged against those who come to their corner in the mornings and hire them. It was a stormy day, and few people were hiring, so the men stood under the eaves in front of the Silver Spring office of Casa of Maryland, an immigrant rights group. Barrios was not a day laborer, but the men said his death reinforced their feelings of vulnerability.
"They lie," Javier Caranza, 36, of Langley Park said of those doing the hiring. "They don't tell you what the real job is. . . . They say they need a carpenter's assistant, but the job requires a carpenter. You're paid like an assistant, and you don't know how to use the machines and saws."
Walking past the workers, Silvia Navas, Casa's senior manager for the employment program, said: "The day laborers are exempt from the workers' compensation laws, and they don't get benefits. Everybody can hire day laborers, and if they get injured, well, bye-bye!"
On May 18, Barrios was working on landscaping in a neighborhood of three-car garages and immaculate lawns in North Potomac. He fell into the grinding machinery of a mulch-spreading truck. A co-worker from TopMulch, a company with about 20 employees based in the Montgomery community of Brookeville, found his remains soon after.
His death is being investigated by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health agency and by the branch of the U.S. Labor Department that deals with child-labor laws. The owner of TopMulch, Paul Saiz, said Barrios was 17, and he has copies of Barrios's work permit and identification cards to prove it. Barrios' family says he was 15.
Work permits are given out only by secondary schools, some government-sponsored summer jobs programs, the Ocean City Police Department and the state's Division of Labor and Industry, said Linda Sherman, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. According to the state's Division of Labor and Industry Web site, work permits are required for those under 18 to work in Maryland.
Barrios did not attend school. So how, or whether, he obtained a work permit "would be something the investigation will look into," Sherman said.
Of 925 workers in Maryland who died on the job from 1992 to 2002, 23 were teenagers, Sherman said. Of that number, three were 15 or younger, and four were 16 or 17. The details of their deaths were not released because they were juveniles. Sixteen of the workers were 18 or 19. Half of their deaths were transportation-related; 25 percent were from assaults or other violent acts; and 18 percent resulted from exposure to harmful substances or environments.
Casa says it has been investigating worker rights complaints and hazardous workplaces for months. After meetings with day laborers, including Latino, African, and Caribbean immigrants, throughout Maryland, advocacy specialist Natali Fani is writing a report.
Construction industry workers, she said, complain that there isn't enough training -- especially for immigrants who have never seen some of the power tools that middle-class Americans take for granted. On the Eastern Shore and in more rural parts of Maryland, she said, workers complained about illnesses caused by pesticides used on fields and front lawns on which they work.
"They don't just get injured, but they're afraid to take a day off, and the pain is really awful," Fani said.
Staff writer Brigid Schulte contributed to this report.