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Immigrant Worker’s Death Highlights Hazards

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jesus Garcia died trying to earn a better life for his family, just one of countless immigrant workers who now dominate an ever-dangerous construction industry.

An 18-year employee of Lu Mar Industrial Metals Co., a Compton demolition firm, Garcia, 36, was killed by a dose of carbon monoxide last month after unknowingly entering a Covina work pit filled with the colorless, odorless gas.

Like many blue-collar workers, he had suffered the scrapes and bruises of those whose livelihood is earned with sweat. A husband and father of five children, he willingly traded the hazards for a steady paycheck that averaged $500 a week.

“He liked to work hard, to work with his hands,” said Garcia’s widow, Catalina, a few days after the Jan. 22 accident. “He always said he’d like a safer job, but we didn’t have a choice. We felt lucky to have money coming in.”

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The incident, which injured two other workers and several of the emergency personnel who tried to save them, is being investigated by Cal/OSHA as a confined-space accident in which insufficient ventilation and worker training may have played a role.

But it also raises the larger question of workplace safety among immigrants like Garcia, who now fill most of the construction workers’ ranks.

“Immigrants are working some of the most dangerous jobs with the least safety protection and are very unlikely to have the proper training,” said Marianne Brown, director of UCLA’s Labor Occupation Safety and Health Program. “And when they do get injured, they and their families rarely know what the compensation rights are.”

According to the state Department of Industrial Relations, immigrants make up 64% of the state’s construction work force, a more than threefold increase from 20% in 1980.

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Government statistics do not break down the number of workplace injuries according to immigration status.

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State records show worker deaths rising and falling with the tide of California’s construction booms and busts since 1980. But nationally, construction deaths rose 14% in three years, to 1,048 in 1995 from 919 in 1992.

Plummeting union representation is also blamed for increasing injuries, Brown said. Workplace safety experts say unionized work sites have a higher proportion of workers trained in apprenticeship programs, as well as procedures for workers to challenge unsafe conditions.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1974 60% of California’s construction workers belonged to unions. By 1995, the most recent statistically recorded year, the number had dipped to 23%.

The result, some experts say, has been a construction site atmosphere in which eager immigrants vie for positions, sometimes taking less pay and performing varied jobs, and sacrificing adequate safety in one task for lax safety in several.

“I’ve noticed that [immigrants] are often willing to placate their boss. They’re willing to take on a job without knowing what they’re doing and without knowing its dangers,” said a longtime Cal/OSHA official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Jesus Garcia, it seems, fit that profile.

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He did not belong to a union. He was a utility man, one day using his trade school auto mechanic’s training to repair company vehicles, the next guiding a blowtorch over metal. That was the dismantling job he was about to do in the basement of an old Sears store when he suffocated in the 30-foot-deep construction pit.

His widow now grapples with the prospect of raising her three boys, ages 11, 7, and 4, and two girls, ages 12 and 9, alone in their two-bedroom home in Paramount.

Catalina Garcia says she will receive the minimum state workers’ compensation death benefits--$160,000, paid at a maximum of $490 a week--through the company. She says that is enough to cover her husband’s funeral costs and keep the children well-fed and clothed for a few years. But she has never worked, has little money saved and has little idea how to survive in the long run without her husband’s pay.

The family had just moved into its small home in an industrial area, its front gate facing a dirt road muddied by a crew of bricklayers mixing concrete, gravel and water for a new warehouse. The seeds of Garcia’s desire to raise his family here are planted in the backyard. Eleven-year-old Jesus Jr. points out lemon, avocado and cherry saplings. Catalina says she would like to stay, but doesn’t know how she will make the $850-a-month mortgage payments.

“He had big plans for us here,” she said. “I hope we can go through with them.”

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To complicate matters, the owner of Lu Mar Industrial is her cousin-in-law, Gabriel Garcia. In addition to the state investigation, Garcia says he faces at least two lawsuits filed against him by emergency workers after the incident.

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Garcia, whose firm employs 35 people, promises to help provide for the family and denies that his company is liable.

“The children are going to have a roof over their heads,” he said. “They’re going to be secure. I’ll make sure of that.”

Nevertheless, Catalina agonizes over the possibility that a trusted family member may share fault for her husband’s death.

Will she sue Garcia? She shivers at the question. It was Garcia, she says, who offered a job to her husband when he arrived from Guadalajara, Mexico, at 18, with a work visa and an able body.

“It is too soon to know anything now,” Catalina Garcia said. “I just want to remember this good man, who loved his family and worked for all they needed.”

Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein contributed to this story.


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