Texas taxpayers cover uninsured workers' hospital costs as construction companies skirt the bill

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by DAVID SCHECHTER

Bio | Email | Follow: @davidschechter

WFAA

Posted on May 13, 2013 at 10:34 PM

Updated Tuesday, May 14 at 5:18 PM

DALLAS -- Whether you like it or not, in Texas, many of the people who build our homes and offices are in the country illegally.

It's a reality.

Here's another reality: Texas is the only state in the country where, when an undocumented worker gets injured on the job, you may get stuck with the bill, while the construction companies that profit from cheap labor walk away from the problem.

Take the story of Guillermo Mata; like so many Texas construction workers, he is undocumented. But his story does document a hidden cost of construction that you pay for -- his emergency room bill.

In December, Mata shattered his leg after falling from the second story onto a concrete floor at construction site in Irving.

"Take me to Parkland,” Mata recalls saying after the injury.

Hospitals cannot refuse to treat an injured person, and Texas is the only state in the country where the boss is not on the hook to buy insurance that covers the cost when a worker's injured.

Cutting that cost means cheaper construction in Texas, but critics say that cost just gets passed along to hospitals and taxpayers.

Mata's bill at Parkland is $110,000. Can he pay it?

"I don't think so," he said. "It's a lot of money."

Mata is suing the general contractor on the job, ICI Construction. Mata's attorney said there is no evidence Mata was covered by workers comp, which would've paid for his care.

ICI declined to comment for this story, but in a court record, the company said Mata was not an employee of ICI -- that he worked for a sub-contractor.

In the meantime, taxpayer-supported Parkland is stuck with another big bill.

"I think taxpayers are definitely picking up the tab,” said Emily Timm, a worker’s rights advocate with the Workers Defense Project, based in Austin.

How big could the tab be?

Research from the University of Texas shows, of all the construction workers in Texas, two-out-of-five have no worker's comp.

"That's a lot of workers on Texas construction sites who are working at their own risk,” Timm said.

When they're injured, paying for their care becomes the hospital's problem.

"That's just inherently not fair,” said Steve Love, Director of the Dallas Fort Worth Hospital Council trade group. The council supports mandatory workers comp insurance coverage in Texas.

"We're treating people in emergency rooms and trauma units, and not necessarily getting reimbursed for those services,” Love said. "That's not a good business equation for any business."

Unless you're on the other end of the equation, like a construction company, Timm says.

"Construction companies don't see it as their responsibility,” said the worker’s advocate.

A bill that would make worker's comp mandatory in Texas died a quick death this session in Austin.

Texas homebuilders are among the most powerful lobbying groups in the state. From 2009-2012, home builders donated $18.4 million to Texas politicians, including $2.1 million to Governor Rick Perry, according Texans for Public Justice.

The Texas Association of Builders, a major trade group which fought the bill for mandatory comp coverage, declined to comment for this story.

Meanwhile, the injuries and the cost to taxpayers continue.

Jose Alarcon, also an undocumented worker, broke his back working as contract labor on a TxDOT construction project in McKinney. While working, he was pinned under a roll of steel rebar.

"Forty-eight rods," Alarcon said. "Eight tons.”

TxDOT requires all of its contractors to certify that they've provided comp coverage for all workers. But a lawsuit by Alarcon claims he was not covered.

That means, again, Parkland picks up his $132,000 hospital bill while TxDOT benefits from a lower cost of construction.

How will Alarcon pay it?

"I don't know. I have no money," he said. "The company I work for, they don't have insurance."

That's the hidden cost of the cheap and sometimes illegal labor employed by the construction industry.

It's a cost underwritten by hospitals like Parkland. And taxpayers like you.

E-mail dschechter@wfaa.com

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