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Workers Defense: Austin Worker Loses Job for Cooperating with Safety Investigators

A 19-year-old construction worker who barely survived a worksite accident at a high-rise construction project in downtown Austin says he was fired because he told federal safety investigators what happened, the Workers Defense Project revealed this weekend.  On Saturday, Wilmer Lopez Sanchez and others took to the streets in the rain and the cold to protest what they called his retaliatory firing.

On November 8th, a load of reinforcing steel fell several stories from a crane at the new luxury apartment high-rise at 7th and Rio Grande.  Lopez Sanchez was nearly crushed and other workers were rushed to the hospital.  Federal safety investigators interviewed Lopez Sanchez about the accident on Tuesday afternoon.  He was fired the next day.  “They almost took my life.  Now they've taken my job,“ he said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigator assigned to the 7 Rio case did not speak Spanish, so the federal agency chose to bring representatives from Workers Defense Project (WDP) to the worksite to assist with translation.  But, when the WDP representatives arrived, the construction companies blocked the workers’ representatives from entering the worksite, and had the worker’s boss serve as translator instead.  After translating the worker’s statement for the OSHA investigator, the company fired the worker the very next day.  The general contractor on the job was Kansas City-based JE Dunn, and the concrete subcontractor was Dallas-based Capform.  Neither company returned calls for comment.

“Workers are regularly intimidated by their supervisors after dangerous or deadly worksite accidents occur,” said Patricia Zavala, Director of Employment Services at WDP.  “Retaliatory firing of whistle-blowers and witnesses isn’t just wrong, it’s illegal.”

“Capform should not have taken Mr. López Sánchez’s job away for simply cooperating with a federal investigation.  We ask that you offer López Sánchez his job back, and provide a written apology for the entire chain of events.  Please contact me with any further questions.  We look forward to working with you to resolve this matter as soon as possible,” Zavala said in a letter to Capform.

“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,” Emily Timm with the Workers Defense Project told the Texas Tribune“This is just not a sustainable way for us to build our state.”

Fortunately in this case, both the general contractor and the subcontractor carried workers' comp insurance.  But that's not usually the case, as the Tribune's Jay Root reported:

“Texas is the only state in the nation that does not make it mandatory for employers of a certain size to carry worker’s 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 Worker’s 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.’”

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