Workers’ injuries lead to legal fight

Hector Torres stood four stories high on a Lake of the Ozarks shore March 23, 2005, installing arches on terraces at Plaza Gardens on the Lake condominiums.

There were no guardrails to prevent falling, the undocumented Mexican immigrant recalls. He wasn’t wearing a safety harness.

Suddenly, fellow worker Apolinar Sandoval Mendoza grabbed Torres to keep his balance. Both plummeted.

Mendoza died.

His pelvis, neck and head injured, Torres can’t work.

Missing safety precautions are common at some work sites employing illegal immigrants. At least seven Hispanics were killed at work in the Kansas City area from 2000 through 2004, compared with three the previous five years.

Across the United States, deaths of Hispanic workers totaled 883 in 2004.

That was 11 percent higher than in 2003 and 42 percent higher than in 1994, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Because of their documentation status, employers are cutting even more corners with these guys, treating them more like fungible goods than human beings,” said Torres’ lawyer, Michael Belancio. “They’re not getting all the safety equipment, not getting proper training.”

Torres’ employer said harnesses were available.

Just a month before at the site, another immigrant, Aaron Medina, fell two stories and was seriously injured.

For the risk, workers say they got $9 an hour, often cash, for 70-hour weeks.

The developer of Plaza Gardens on the Lake (now called Royale Palms) was Michael Schlup, who served time in federal prison in the ’90s for fraud in connection with home loan applications.

Schlup, building a home on a Leawood parcel he got last year in trade for his $2.4-million Leawood mansion, declined to discuss the Camdenton incidents or what followed:

• He faces 14 felony counts of not deducting Missouri employer withholding taxes from paychecks for three months in 2005; failure to file withholding returns and to pay the taxes.

• The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Schlup Investment, the general contractor, $7,000 for five “serious” violations.

• In a temporary award, the Missouri labor department said Schlup’s insurance company should pay Torres about $17,000 for 47 weeks he wasn’t able to work and $373 a week as long as he is disabled. It treated Medina much the same.

The insurance firm has asked the Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Commission to review the award; it says its contract didn’t cover workers in that situation. Paula McKeon, administrative law judge, said Schlup should have paid the lost wages and medical bills and then sought insurance reimbursement.

• Schlup Investment also must pay the men’s $40,000 legal costs, McKeon said.

• Mendoza’s widow and children have filed a wrongful death lawsuit.