On the serious dangers posed to marginalized workers under Trump, in Boston and beyond
Tomas Garcia labored through the graveyard shift—degreasing, scrubbing, and sanitizing the kitchen of a well-known Back Bay hotel. While the rest of the city slept, Tomas bent, twisted, and folded himself into every inch of that kitchen. Because like so many who have come before, Tomas takes great pride in his work, knowing his sacrifice means his children won’t experience the struggles he’s endured. You know, the American Dream.
So, Tomas can be forgiven for thinking when he was hurt on the job that his employer would help out. A cynical reader would tell Tomas he’s wrong. And that reader would be right.
“I had been working there for two years and 13 days. How is it possible that I was fired since I did my work well?” Garcia asked, soon after being told, “We have no work for a one-armed man.” Early one morning, Tomas had been cleaning the steel-surfaced countertops when he slipped on a slick section of the floor and landed hard on his shoulder. He told his supervisor that he needed to see a doctor. Soon after, he learned his hours had been cut for the audacious act of telling someone he needed help.
That was when Tomas reached out to the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) Immigrant Worker Center, a place that provides workers with the tools and information they need to protect their health and defend their rights. It was a Worker Center organizer who discovered the reason Tomas was unable to collect workers’ compensation benefits. The hotel did not employ Tomas. Instead, it was a temporary employment agency that was paying him.
Tomas is a victim of corporate America’s version of the American Dream, where the ability to shift, subcontract, and outsource liability is every CEO’s fantasy. For Tomas, this meant that the hotel and temp agency would point fingers at each other over responsibility for his comp claim, hoping that the process would become so protracted and burdensome that Tomas would just give up and go away.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, a Worker Center organizer told Tomas that he needed to show up at work every day, no matter what. By doing this, the company could not say he had abandoned his position and was therefore not eligible for compensation. The organizer also told Tomas to continue going to the hospital and receiving care for his shoulder and to document everything. With documentation in hand, Tomas went to a lawyer, who in turn filed his claim with the Department of Industrial Accidents, where he was eventually awarded total disability benefits.
Things worked out for Tomas. For MassCOSH, however, an organization with a 40-year record of helping workers like Tomas, things aren’t as bright.
MassCOSH receives close to a third of its budget from the federal government. Mostly in the form of grants that are designed to help workers like Tomas. Black and brown men and women toiling in dangerous and low-wage industries, where injury rates are high and employer-provided training is inadequate or nonexistent. Now, President Trump’s proposed budget seeks to eliminate those grants which make up such a large portion of MassCOSH’s budget.
As recipients of Susan Harwood grants, MassCOSH has trained an estimated 20,000 workers in dangerous and low-wage industries. What makes the Harwood grant so (cost) effective is its “train the trainer” model. This is where “experienced personnel teach less-experienced instructors how to deliver courses, workshops, and seminars,” a process which allows a “workshop to build a pool of competent instructors who can then teach the material to other people, ensuring more employees get timely training.”
Al Vega, MassCOSH’s Director of Programming and Policy, says that eliminating Susan Harwood grants is “one of the most counterproductive measures the administration can make.” He adds, “these grants yield results well beyond their price tag. They are proven to help small businesses and their employees. It’s clear that the president is wielding this budget like an ideological cudgel. At a cost of $11 million a year, Susan Harwood grants are, comparatively, a drop in the ocean. And contrary to what is said about them in the president’s budget, they are a proven, effective training grant.”
And it’s not just workers like Tomas who will be hurt by cuts to MassCOSH’s budget. Lost amid Trump’s carnage will be a group of teens from Dorchester and Roxbury who are part of a program that has become a national model for young workers to learn and organize for safe and healthy work.
MassCOSH’s Teens Lead at Work (TL@W) program was created in 2001, with aid from a Susan Harwood Grant. The program has been praised by David Michaels, the longest-serving administrator in the history of OSHA, as “unique” in its ability “to reach out to young workers with life-saving information.” Educating young workers to identify hazardous situations can give them the confidence they need to speak up at work and ask for the training and protections they need to be safe,” Michaels added. To date, TL@W has trained over 2000 teens.
In 2004, after a Boston teen was stabbed to death at work while trying to apprehend a shoplifter, a group of MassCOSH’s Peer Leaders took it upon themselves to investigate and document the risk and impact of workplace violence on young workers. They found that three-quarters had never received any violence or health and safety training. The teens then set about to create the Young Worker Violence Prevention Training Program (YWVPTP). Through discussion and role play, teens are taught how to respond to common workplace hazards as well as more serious threats, like how to reduce the risk of violence during a robbery. TL@W then went on to literally write the book on preventing violence in the workplace for young workers, then they created the app.
TL@W’s impact isn’t felt only on the job, as teens also become engaged in the civic process. In 2007, Peer Leaders, along with unions and occupational health professionals, became involved with reforming the Child Labor Law. Because of this, the attorney general is now able to cite and fine employers who violate the law. Additionally, it prohibits employers from leaving young workers alone without supervision after 8 PM.
It’s painfully clear that President Trump is utterly contemptuous of the people who put him in office. Otherwise, he would see the obvious value that Harwood grants offer his working-class base. The Immigrant Worker Center and TL@W are clear evidence of a successful program. Moreover, since its inception, Susan Harwood grantees have trained 2.1 million workers. And because of its “train the trainer” model, hundreds of thousands more have benefited from that training.
By staking out a policy stance of two repeals for each new regulation, the president is signaling that his negotiations open with threats and proceed backwards. This less-than-zero-sum game means, for the next four years, workers will suffer under President Trump. But Massachusetts workers do not have to suffer the same ignominy as workers in the rest of the country.
Call it, “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts” redux. Currently, in the State House there are many bills, with wide support, that would protect Massachusetts workers. Legislation that would prevent wage theft, protect the health and safety of public workers, properly compensate disfigured workers, protect the jobs of sick workers and their family members, and allow workers the opportunity to earn a decent wage. By passing this progressive legislation, Massachusetts can, once again, send a clear message that Massachusetts is, once again, on the right side of history.
Sean Mulkerrin is the engagement fellow at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.