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Injured workers firing sparks protest

A former employee of Capform Incorporated is in a disputing allegation with the company that he was a victim of whistle-blower retaliation after speaking with federal authorities about an accident.

Wilmer Lopez Sanchez, 19 at the time, was injured on November 8th, when a load of reinforcing steel fell from a crane in downtown Austin working on housing projects. A nonprofit advocacy group, The Workers Defense Project, told reporters this weekend he was terminated on Nov. 20.

The Workers Defense Project said Lopez Sanchez was fired in retaliation for speaking with OSHA, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and is pressing for an investigation.

Lopez's former company, Capform Inc. of Carrollton commented that Lopez agreed to quit working for the company after the day he spoke with OSHA. Jim Renaus, the Capform Vice president stated that Lopez was not fired, but simply resigned to another project after the allegations were made by two other co-workers about "inappropriate behaviors" during work.

The incident occurred on November 15th and four days later did Lopez spoke to OSHA about an investigation. Renaud spoke that Lopez Sanchez had been working 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. “Any of my employees have the right to talk to OSHA... We cooperate with OSHA on all their investigations.”

Workers of the group denied any of the companies report of the events. Workers Defense Project director, Gregario Casar said his group is asking the company to return Lopez Sanchez his job and to apologize for terminating him after speaking to OSHA investigators.

In the workers account of the story, workers protested to bring attention to neglected worker safety at construction sites in Austin on a Sunday, where an injured worker got fired for reporting the construction accident to authorities.

Protesters demanded that Wilmer Lopez Sanchez, the 19-year-old migrant worker who was injured and fired, be reinstated. Protesting in both English and Spanish, they called for action from companies for more protection for workers in Texas, where many pro-business laws lack regulations, are often cited as the key to a 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,” says Emily Timm, the deputy director of the Workers Defense Project. “This is just not a sustainable way for us to build our state.” Timm helped organized the protest that day.

The protesters from the group marched to the high apartment construction site in downtown Austin and criticized the contractors for an improper firing for Lopez Sanchez.

At the 7 Rio Project, on November 8th, the rods of the crane broke, dropping reinforced steel among the construction workers, when one of the loads hit Lopez Sanchez in the head and injured two other workers between Seventh and Rio Grande street in Austin, said Workers Defense Project.

Lopez Sanchez informed OSHA of his accident days later and was told to seek medical attention. He was treated in a clinic designated by the Capform Inc. of Carrollton contractor, said Gregorio Casar, political director of the Workers Defense Project.

Workers Defense Project, on behalf of Lopez Sanchez, called OSHA, a federal agency that oversees workplace accidents and deaths. Casar said OSHA had not been notified about the accident by Lopez Sanchez's company or the general contractor.

OSHA "didn't know about it until we told them,” says Casar.

Lopez Sanchez spoke with OSHA investigators on Nov. 19, where Capform would fired him the very next day, Casar said.

Representatives of the general contractor, J.E. Dunn, later posted a sign outside the 7 Rio project saying its job site was “recognized for safety excellence” by OSHA. Voice-mails were left in concerns with the situations to company’s corporate headquarters in Carrollton phone number. No phone calls or email messages were returned that Saturday.

Messages left at OSHA’s Austin and Dallas offices were also not returned on the plight of the situation.

The Workers Defense Project is pressuring OSHA to investigate the accidents a whistle-blower retaliation case. Federal law prohibits any kind of discrimination from companies for reporting safety violations. The Workers Defense Project says that federal intervention is needed, because Texas state laws doesn't make it illegal to fire whistle-blowers, an action that may prevent future accidents or deaths and raises awareness for safety issues in work zones.

Last year, workers death have initially declined last year, but Texas oversaw more worker deaths this year by more than 20 percent in 2012. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 531 people were reported to have been killed on the job, with 105 deaths in the construction industry. On Monday, a State Farm worker fell to his death at a regional campus construction site in Richardson.

No fatal deaths were caused during the accident in Austin on Nov. 8. Workers' compensation insurance were carried out in paying for Lopez Sanchez and the other workers to receive medical treatments. However, many employers do not carry workers' compensation, leaving workers and their families often with little or no safety insurance after an event of injury or death at workplaces.

Texas is the only state that does not require mandatory compensation insurance or equivalent to their employees, making injured workers rely on government assistance.

“It’s a huge cost to our taxpayers,” says 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.”

Source: The Texas Tribune, "Injured Worker's Ex-Employer Denies Retaliation," Jay Root, Nov. 23, 2013