This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Maria Delacruz Meza and Maria Cano are lucky a judge gave them lifetime wages and medical benefits for their debilitating industrial injuries before the Utah Legislature had the chance to take that opportunity away.
The two Mexican women, both undocumented workers, are confined to wheelchairs and can never work again after they contracted a nerve disorder caused by toxic fumes they inhaled from working in a furniture manufacturing plant for several years.
When they first showed signs that their motor skills were failing, they were referred to University of Utah Medical Center doctors John Steffens and Jennifer Juhl Majersik who concluded they had bromide toxicity from inhaling the chemicals at the plant and were disabled.
But the state Workers Compensation Fund, which would be liable for their medical costs and lost wages, sent the women to the agency's own doctor, who concluded they had suffered no debilitating injuries. So they were offered small compensation checks but were denied wages and further coverage of medical costs. A Labor Commission rule forbids claimants from paying an attorney to appeal such decisions, so the women were doomed to a life of disability and poverty.
The rule is convenient for insurance companies, as well as developers and manufacturers - industries whose workers are most prone to being injured on the job - since an adjuster can deny a claim and the injured party cannot pay an attorney to appeal. This gets the insurance company and the employer neatly off the hook.
But Meza and Cano got a reprieve. Attorney Michael Martinez took their case for free. Several months ago, after three years of litigation, Administrative Law Judge Richard La Juenesse ordered the Workers Compensation Fund to pay the lifetime benefits and wages. Just in time, perhaps.
A bill filed by Rep. Mike Morley, R-Spanish Fork, would revoke benefits to injured workers who commit a crime or are in the country illegally. The idea is that illegal immigrants cannot get another job or go back to work and may be collecting benefits while sitting in jail.
But Morley's bill also puts the burden on the injured worker to prove a claim denial is unjust. As it happens, Morley owns five construction companies, and construction is the industry where workers are injured most frequently, according to studies by University of Utah economist Pam Perlich.
Perlich, in an address at the Workers Compensation Fund's annual meeting a month ago, pointed out the Latino population in Utah increased by 92,000 between 2000 and 2005, accounting for 24 percent of the state's population growth during that time. Most of the new Latinos were between 20 and 35 - prime working age - and the majority were males, she said. She also pointed out that the Spanish-speaking newcomers most frequently take jobs in construction, manufacturing, agriculture and the service industry - where injury on the job is the most likely.
It was shortly after Perlich's address that Morley came up with his bill to protect the state fund and other insurance companies, as well as employers, from having to provide benefits to injured workers who happen to be undocumented.
Morley is known to push legislation that directly benefits his businesses. He is partners with former legislators Jim Ferrin and Glenn Way in U.S. Charter Development, which builds and finances state-run charter schools, thanks to legislation they all had a hand in developing.
The trio's company currently is in a dispute with one charter school, Dual Immersion Academy, which they built and financed. The academy's roof leaks, it developed mold, students eat lunch in a tent and are sill waiting on a gym.