By MARIA PEREZ
Naples Daily News
NAPLES, Fla. (AP) – After Abednego de la Cruz sliced his finger to the bone cutting concrete blocks while building a fire station in Tallahassee, his boss fired him and refused continued medical care for his injury.
De la Cruz, a 37-year-old father whose dominant hand remains damaged, thought he could rely on the workers’ compensation system, which requires employers to cover medical care and lost wages for injured employees.
Instead, his employer called the police and had him arrested. The undocumented immigrant now faces almost certain deportation and fears he won’t be able to raise his 1-year-old, U.S.-born daughter.
Some Florida businesses profit from the labor of unauthorized immigrants after accepting phony identification when hiring them, and then the employers or their insurers report them after a work injury for using false documents, a yearlong Naples Daily News investigation found.
Workers’ compensation fraud laws are meant to punish those who try to abuse the system, such as employees who fake injuries or employers who leave workers unprotected. But a 2003 change in the Florida law is punishing immigrants who were legitimately injured if they use Social Security numbers not assigned to them or fake IDs to obtain a job or injury benefits.
Most of the injured immigrants reported under the law in recent years work for a few companies that provide labor and personnel services to high-risk industries such as construction and landscaping, promising cheaper workers’ compensation costs to their client businesses, the Daily News found.
Some companies or their insurers legally avoid paying injury claims, while their injured undocumented workers lose their jobs, get arrested, face jail and deportation, and must pay their own medical bills.
SouthEast Personnel Leasing, based in Holiday, hired de la Cruz in 2013 and leased him to a construction business. Because it’s not required, no one verified his Social Security number until he was injured a year later. Lion Insurance, owned by one of SouthEast’s owners, reported de la Cruz to state investigators.
De la Cruz was charged with a felony for using a fake Social Security number and was denied workers’ compensation benefits.
The same thing happened to Erik Martinez after a nail ricocheted into his left eye while he worked on a roof in Sarasota. And Juvenal Dominguez, who fractured his left knee while laying pipes in a ditch in Palm City. And to Caleb Santiago, who had four fingers amputated after trying to repair a lawn mower at his landscaping job in Jacksonville Beach.
They are among the estimated 600,000 unauthorized workers in Florida, many of whom fill the ranks of the state’s most dangerous jobs – one in five construction workers, one in three farmworkers.
And when they get injured, they become disposable.
After analyzing courts and arrest data, reviewing thousands of pages of judicial and investigative records, and crisscrossing the state to interview workers, the Daily News investigation found that:
At least 163 immigrant workers in Florida were charged since 2004 with a felony of providing false identification after they were injured. In at least 159 cases, their employer or their insurance company reported them.
More than 80 percent of these injured immigrants reported between 2013 and 2016 worked for employee leasing companies such as SouthEast or staffing agencies that actually recruit workers.
With at least 56 cases, or about a third, SouthEast had far more workers charged than any other company. The company and its related businesses continued for a decade hiring immigrants without verifying documents and turning them in after they were injured.
The same Florida law used against the immigrants also makes it a crime for employers to hire workers they know are using phony identification. But the Daily News could identify only one employer who faced prosecution in the 14 years since the law was passed.
Under the law, businesses have little motivation to verify documentation of workers when hiring them, but employers and their insurers gained a major incentive to check once they are injured.
Companies could easily verify an applicant’s Social Security number to avoid employing undocumented immigrants, said Cora Cisneros Molloy, a Fort Myers lawyer who represents workers.
“Do they do that? No, because they don’t want to know. It’s willful blindness, and they take advantage of it,” Molloy said. “They use them to work, as cheap labor, but then, if they get hurt, `You are done. You get nothing.’ “
SouthEast owner John Porreca and company lawyer Brian Evans declined requests for interviews from the Daily News and did not respond to questions submitted through email and certified letters.
Evans sent a statement saying SouthEast and its affiliated companies comply with Florida statutes. State law requires insurers to report cases where they suspect fraud.
SouthEast “is, and continues to be, respectful of an injured worker’s right to receive workers’ compensation benefits under applicable Florida law,” Evans wrote.
The Daily News contacted more than a dozen insurers that reported workers and six employee leasing companies that had employees reported. All either didn’t respond, declined to comment or refused to answer specific questions.
Brian Pincket, vice president of employee leasing company Matrix One Source, offered a brief statement saying two of the company’s three workers reported for prosecution received workers’ comp settlements after hiring lawyers, and the third employee returned to work quickly without any lost wages. More than $229,000 was spent on the claims, he said.
The director of Florida’s Division of Investigative and Forensic Services, which investigates workers found using false identity information, said he wasn’t aware that employee leasing companies and their insurers reported most of the injured immigrants in recent years.
“That’s not something I’m aware of and it would be unfortunate if that’s truly what’s taking place, so maybe that’s something that would need to be looked into,” director Simon Blank said.
Blank said his staff must enforce the law.
“Although it’s unfortunate and we feel for those people, the bottom line is they committed a crime, and that crime is putting other innocent people at risk,” he said.
But Florida could face a bigger problem, said Deborah Berkowitz, former chief of staff for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and senior fellow at the National Employment Law Project. The state law could make workplaces more dangerous if companies hire undocumented workers with the belief they can avoid the cost of injuries, she said.
“All the workers will suffer, the undocumented and the documented,” Berkowitz said.
When de la Cruz was a child, instead of going to school he worked to help his family. At age 7, he was already selling homemade quesadillas in the street with his mother.
At 18, de la Cruz left Mexico to find a job in the U.S. He wanted to put food on the table for his parents and five younger siblings, who stayed behind in an agricultural area of Chiapas near the Guatemalan border.
After swimming across the Rio Grande at the Texas border, de la Cruz settled in Florida, where he started off picking tomatoes. A foreman at this job gave him his first fake Social Security card that he could use to work.
A couple of years later, de la Cruz moved on to construction, another high-risk job offering up to $200 a week more.
Construction and other high-injury industries rely on unauthorized workers such as de la Cruz. Those immigrants make up 29 percent of roofers, 31 percent of drywall installers, 26 percent of construction painters nationwide, according to Pew Research Center estimates.
Unauthorized workers are more likely to suffer injuries on the job and less likely to file an injury claim, according to University of California, Los Angeles researchers’ analysis of a 2008 survey of workers in low-wage jobs.
The 163 Florida workers charged suffered injuries on the job ranging from amputated fingers to broken bones, claims records reviewed by the Daily News show.
In 2011, 40-year-old Jose Manuel Aguilar, who was HIV positive, died after complications from infections following a bulldozer accident in Okeechobee.
Companies turn to undocumented immigrants for good reason, Molloy said.
“They don’t complain about long hours. They don’t complain about work conditions,” she said. “They just work, work, work.”
State legislatures and courts for the most part have declared that employers and their insurers – not workers or taxpayers – should pay for the care and compensation of those injured on the job, regardless of immigration status.
This approach is better, court rulings and worker advocates argue, because it discourages unscrupulous employers from hiring more undocumented workers on the belief they won’t have to worry about injuries. It also helps keep a level playing field for all businesses and provides safer workplaces in a system that threatens deductibles or higher premiums for employers with high injury rates.
For 31 years, federal law has required employers to ask new hires to sign a form certifying they can work legally and to show documents to prove it, such as green cards or Social Security numbers.
But in most states, including Florida, businesses aren’t required to check through the federal E-Verify system that the documents are legitimate. The Internet-based system compares identifying information an employee offers to information in federal databases.
Many employers continue accepting false documents without checking them, even in industries with a high percentage of unauthorized workers or with a history of employees using fake identification. Some workers have accused employers of actually providing the false documents.
In 2003, Florida’s Legislature overhauled the state’s workers’ compensation system, including making it a third-degree felony to provide false identity information when obtaining a job or injury benefits. While the new law kept earlier language that all workers are entitled to injury benefits, it also allowed companies to deny benefits to many injured undocumented immigrants.
Workers employed by staff leasing companies in high-risk jobs became the biggest targets.
About half of the 163 injured immigrant workers charged with using false identity documents since 2004 – or 85 – worked for staff leasing companies or, in a few cases, staffing companies, according to a Daily News analysis of arrest and court data from the Florida Division of Investigative and Forensic Services, as well as the Office of State Courts Administrator.
The proportion grew in recent years to 85 percent, with 53 of the 62 injured workers reported between 2013 and 2016 employed by staff leasing companies or staffing agencies.
Staff leasing companies, known as professional employer organizations, become the employer of workers already hired by their client businesses, and manage payroll and benefits of workers, who are leased back to the businesses. Staffing companies usually recruit workers for companies.
Instead of verifying their documents when hiring, staff leasing companies like SouthEast and their insurers used the law to report undocumented workers after they were injured, court and state records show.
Some employers know they are hiring undocumented workers with false documents, or know the high-risk jobs they offer attract a large number of unauthorized immigrants, said workers’ compensation lawyer Brian Carter. But they choose not to dig deeper to verify their identification documents.
“They don’t look any further, and they certainly could if they wanted to,” Carter said. “They just don’t want to.”
SouthEast could have avoided hiring de la Cruz by using E-Verify when he applied. Based on his case reports, a quick search would have shown the Social Security number he provided belonged to someone else.
De la Cruz, who speaks and reads some English, said he completed as much of the application paperwork as he could on his own. He asked an electrician at his work site to help complete the rest.
Other unauthorized workers charged after getting injured were employed despite questionable information on hiring forms.
One of the arrested workers signed a form when he was hired that checked boxes identifying him as a U.S. citizen, a permanent resident, a non-citizen national and an alien authorized to work. But only one status can apply at a time to an employee. In another case, a worker didn’t sign the form.
A year after de la Cruz was hired, when a buzzsaw sliced his hand on the job, SouthEast’s affiliated insurer reported him.
A few weeks after the injury, he was still unable to move his hand without pain when officers knocked on the door of the cramped trailer he rented and arrested him at dinnertime. He was charged with workers’ compensation fraud, because he applied for a job with false documents.
“I felt it was unfair what happened to me, because I had had an accident,” said de la Cruz, who still works construction jobs when he can. “I wasn’t trying to steal from the company.”
Blank, head of the state office that investigates workers’ comp fraud, said his staff has an obligation to enforce the law if someone’s Social Security number is used fraudulently by a worker.
“The reason laws are put in place is to protect the law-abiding citizens and the innocent people who are being impacted because of these offenses,” he said.
But state prosecutors, who often seek restitution from workers for insurance companies that may have paid benefits, rarely seek restitution for victims of stolen Social Security numbers. The Daily News found only one case in the past 14 years in which the owner of the stolen Social Security number is listed as owed restitution.
Blank said the victims of identity theft may not suffer a loss until years later.
In 2016, when de la Cruz showed up for a visit with his probation officer, immigration agents arrested him. He hired a lawyer to fight deportation and was released on a $10,000 bond after about a month in detention.
This summer, after being denied a request for asylum, de la Cruz sat down for lunch at an Orlando restaurant with his partner, their daughter and his partner’s relatives, trying not to show his sadness.
“Only a small pain inside,” he said.
In addition to the injured workers arrested, state investigators have used the statute to charge more than 600 other workers since 2004 for using false identity information to get jobs. Those arrests were often the result of investigations that identified one Social Security number used by multiple workers or state checks on businesses.
But the state agency has done little to hold businesses accountable for hiring undocumented immigrants they know used false documents.
The Daily News could identify only one employer charged since the law was passed in 2003. Arturo Salas, owner of a small construction business in Lake Worth, told officers in a sworn 2007 statement that he knew his workers were using false documents and were here illegally.
Short of a flat-out confession, state investigators don’t charge employers, even with evidence that managers provided phony identifying information to unauthorized workers seeking a job or demanded kickbacks from undocumented immigrants to work.
When authorities arrested 12 undocumented workers in a Fort Pierce Waste Pro plant in 2012, accusing them of obtaining a job with false identifying information, six employees told officers they were hired under the identities of former workers or with false information provided by managers or another worker.
Arrested workers told U.S. Department of Labor investigators they were asked to pay hundreds of dollars in kickbacks to work at the company. They also said managers threatened to report them to immigration authorities if they said they were injured at work when seeking medical care.
The Labor report on the 2013 investigation stated a supervisor once threatened to fire or report for deportation employees who didn’t pay $50 each.
State investigators charged the workers for using fake identities, but not the employer.
Federal labor officials didn’t cite the company for the kickbacks, saying the violations occurred beyond a two-year statute of limitations, according to the report.
Waste Pro was not charged with wrongdoing, it cooperated with investigators, and increased scrutiny of employment documentation, company lawyer Amy S. Tingley said.
In at least two cases involving other businesses, arrested injured workers told state investigators their employers provided the false documents, according to case records. State investigators didn’t charge the employers.
Blank said his investigators may not have charged employers other than Salas, but it is not for lack of trying.
“I can tell you, in those cases where we’ve seen multiple people from one company, we’ll look at the company to see if they, too, committed a crime,” he said.
Asked about cases where there was evidence or allegations that employers could have violated the statute, Blank said the employers were referred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
SouthEast boasts on its website that it can save businesses money.
One pitch promises big savings in workers’ compensation costs to companies with a history of above-average injury claims in high-risk industries.
Businesses with an annual payroll of $1 million can save up to $100,000 a year if they use SouthEast, one corporate website states. It pledges “aggressive workers’ compensation claims handling.”
SouthEast and other staff leasing companies promise high-risk businesses lower workers’ comp costs through a bigger pool of employees and work-safety efforts.
Denying claims can also help lower workers’ compensation costs for staff leasing companies that have a large deductible, which means lower premiums because they must pay some or all of the injury claim.
Frank Pennachio, co-founder of Oceanus Partners, a company that provides training and consulting to insurance agents, said many leasing companies rely on high-deductible policies.
“If they have the claims denied, it’s to their advantage,” he said. “They don’t have to pay a deductible.”
An insurer, Pennachio said, could be encouraged to deny claims from undocumented injured workers using false Social Security numbers so they can show their clients they saved them money.
The incentive to deny workers benefits could be even greater if the insurer is owned by the insured.
John and Deborah Porreca, the husband and wife who own SouthEast, own the companies that provide workers’ compensation insurance (Lion Insurance) and claims handling (Packard Claims Administration), according to corporate filings.
Those 2016 filings show Lion Insurance provided coverage to SouthEast with a $1 million deductible for each worker and injury.
SouthEast and its related businesses employ the workers, pocket the premiums paid by their client businesses, and decide which claims should be denied and which workers reported.
Packard denied benefits to the injured workers they reported for prosecution. SouthEast-related companies also obtained court orders to have at least 17 workers pay back more than $127,000 in benefits and expenses.
Despite having so many workers reported for using fake identification, SouthEast continued hiring immigrants without verifying their paperwork, sometimes for the same client companies. And they continued turning them over for prosecution after they were injured.
Roofers Daniel Villagomez and Erik Martinez worked at Lehigh Acres-based Colonial Roofing through SouthEast when they got injured. Both were reported by SouthEast’s affiliated insurer and arrested.
Villagomez, who lives in a trailer in Immokalee, said a splinter hit his right eye when he was hammering roof tiles in a Lee County condominium in 2010 working at Colonial Roofing. He was sentenced to one year probation after the insurer reported him.
Nearly two years later, SouthEast hired Martinez. After he was injured when a nail ricocheted into his left eye on a job in Sarasota, Lion Insurance reported him for using a false Social Security number and denied benefits. Martinez later successfully fought for some benefits.
Chris Rakos, president of Colonial Roofing, said Martinez should not have been denied benefits. Colonial Roofing assumed SouthEast cleared Martinez to work after accepting his documents, Rakos said, adding that his company paid SouthEast for coverage.
“The risk was accepted on the front side by the insurance company,” he said.
An employee leasing company focused on reducing costs that controls an insurer could pose a conflict if documents of new hires aren’t verified because the employer knows their insurer can deny an injury claim later, said James Jones, director of the Katie School of Insurance and Financial Services at Illinois State University.
“To me, that has a potential for unethical behavior,” Jones said.
Other insurers that reported Florida workers have ties to staff leasing companies.
The owner of FrankCrum employee leasing also owns Frank Winston Crum Insurance Company, which reported at least two injured workers.
Sunz Insurance began regularly reporting injured workers shortly after Steve Herrig, who previously owned an employee leasing company, took over the business in 2013. Since then, Sunz reported at least 11 injured workers, the second-highest number, state records show.
Often after an injured worker was arrested, their employer’s insurer went after them for benefits and expenses they may have paid, records show.
Of all workers arrested, at least 43, about a fourth, were ordered to repay more than $345,000, criminal court records show.
Juvenal Dominguez said he fractured his knee in 2014 while laying pipes, working in Palm City for Impact Staff Leasing. Bradenton-based Sunz Insurance reported Dominguez after he told an adjustor he used a fake Social Security number.
The morning of his arrest a few months later, he still couldn’t bend his knee fully. Handcuffed, he sat sideways, with his leg extended on the back seat of the officer’s car. His 5-year-old son watched as he was arrested.
Dominguez was ordered to pay nearly $19,000 the insurer spent on his claim. He has paid about half, for a while relying on his brother to pay rent.
“I even had to ask friends if I could borrow money from them,” Dominguez said.
He is still paying them back.
Some injured workers who were arrested received injury benefits. Florida law allows unauthorized workers to be covered for their injuries if they didn’t provide a false Social Security number to apply for benefits.
In at least 47 cases, charged workers received benefits after hiring lawyers to fight for them, according to a Daily News analysis of petitions before the Office of the Judges of Compensation Claims administrative court.
In some cases, insurers help prosecute injured workers by prodding them to provide evidence that’s later used against them.
Workers typically are unaware they forfeit their benefits if they provide a false Social Security number to receive workers comp assistance or that they don’t have to provide the number to insurers or adjustors who call, said Molloy, the workers’ comp lawyer.
“Those companies have a system in place to set people up,” Molloy said. “It’s absolute entrapment.”
She said insurance company representatives press workers to provide a Social Security number in recorded interviews about their injuries.
Martin Rojas, of West Palm Beach, didn’t know signing some papers and telling the adjustor he was undocumented would land him in jail.
Rojas was working in 2014 as a leased employee of SouthEast when he sprained his ankle at his job with Southern Truss Companies Inc. in Fort Pierce.
The Social Security number Rojas used to get the job was on both the medical records release and the fraud statement forms he signed.
After the accident, a Packard Claims adjuster interviewed Rojas by phone and asked for his Social Security number. Rojas said he didn’t remember it but confirmed it was on his job application, according to a recording of the call.
When the adjustor asked if he had a driver’s license, Rojas volunteered he was undocumented.
Rojas, who doesn’t speak English and attended school only up to the fourth grade, was eventually denied benefits, arrested, and sentenced to 90 days in jail and nearly five years probation. He was ordered to pay about $2,500 in restitution and faced legal expenses. He is now unable to even replace his worn-out clothes.
“I don’t have any money,” he said.
John Byers, owner of Southern Truss, said Rojas should have received workers’ comp benefits. Byers said he contracted with SouthEast because his workers’ comp costs soared during the Great Recession. Southern Truss paid SouthEast for Rojas and others to be covered.
“It doesn’t matter whether he is legal or not,” Byers said. “If he is hurt, he is hurt.”