FL ‘Underground Economy’ Strengthened When Illegal Immigrants Are Hurt at Work

09.13.2017


By Phil Yacuboski

This is the next article in WorkersCompensation.com's “Undocumented, and Unprotected?” series, as our writers explore what is it like to be an undocumented worker in the U.S., and what it means regarding workers' compensation.

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Tallahassee, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – In South Florida, you’ll find nearly a half-million illegal immigrants, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center. In Miami, there are roughly 55,000 alone and the area ranks fifth in the nation when it comes to illegal immigrant populations, with many of them from Cuba. The high numbers of undocumented workers have made workers’ compensation cases difficult, according to those familiar with the process.

“In many cases, it’s the workers’ compensation insurance companies who are bullying the employees when they find out they are not lawfully in the country or they have immigration issues,” said Donald Day, a Naples, FL criminal defense lawyer. In 2014, Day represented many of the employees in the Oakes Farm case, where employees were arrested in a crackdown by Florida officials accused of using fake or stolen social security numbers to obtain a job and in many cases, workers’ compensation benefits. “The employers want to avoid these comp cases as much as possible because their premiums go up.”

In 2003, Florida made it a crime to file a workers’ comp claim using false identification.

Day said the workers are often intimidated into not filing claims after they are hurt and then seek no type of treatment, which he said adds to the underground economy. Lawmakers, Day said, need to find a solution.  

“We can allow them to come here to work legally,” Day said. “We should allow them come here on a legal work status, give them a temporary social security number and let them pay taxes. Short of that, I don’t know how we’ll ever fix the problem.”

For others it isn’t a matter of bullying, it is a matter of following the law. But, most can agree that it is a problem.

“The way we have our system today, we are enforcing an underground economy,” said Judge David Langham, Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. “There’s been a sentiment that the human side of it, meaning that people have to feed their families, should override the legal side of it. In the current structure, there is no middle ground. You either have documentation or you don’t.”

Langham said he believes people are working using someone else’s social security number and are being paid under the table.

“The employers are breaking the law. These people are breaking the law, but when you admit there’s going to be an underground economy, laws are going to be broken,” said Langham. “You have to enforce the laws on the books and either only allow documented workers to work and accept the human tragedy from that or you have to change the law and change the methodology to document these individuals so we can collect the taxes that are due.”

Simon Blank, the head of Florida’s Division of Investigative and Forensic Services, told ProPublica that undocumented workers who used stolen social security numbers could also have problems with credit in the future. He’s also been accused by some lawyers for using workers’ comp laws to enforce immigration laws.

“Our agency is not in the business of going after illegal people,” Blank told ProPublica. “There’s quite a lot of other circumstances why people use fake names and IDs and Social Security numbers aside from immigration. You have people who might have other legal problems. You have people who are wanting to stay off the books for specific reasons, whether its divorces or liens put against them.”

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