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On Broken Backs: The painful reality of how immigrant labor carries the weight of America

On Broken Backs: The painful reality of how immigrant labor carries the weight of America

Picture of Cristina Londono
[Photo by USDA via Flickr.]

Watching Omar Chavez trying to hold back tears in front of his wife and three daughters broke my heart. Due to a back injury at the restaurant where he worked, they lost their home and are now living in a trailer they bought at a junkyard. Two weeks later, Amanda, a fieldworker from Fresno managed to break my heart again as she explained how she and fellow undocumented farmers deal with pain while picking asparagus. “Back pain? We all live with it, take pills — a lot of pills — some brought illegally from Tijuana, until that one day we crawl off the field and can never come back,” she said, in such a matter-of-fact tone that she could have been talking about the weather. I interviewed Omar and Amanda while reporting about other issues, but their stories joined those of hundreds of immigrants I had spoken to before. The memories of their struggles torment me.

The 2017 National Fellowship at the Center for Health Journalism is the best opportunity to research, highlight, and find solutions to the silent pain of thousands, maybe even millions of such workers and their families. Mostly unappreciated and now feeling persecuted, immigrants in the United States grow and harvest the food we eat, care for our children and aging parents, transport goods, build and clean our homes, tend to our gardens, and serve our meals. All of these are occupations on the list of the North American Spine Society’s back-breaking jobs. They do the heavy lifting, carrying the weight of our nation on broken backs.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, back injuries are the most common non-fatal occupational injury. After the common cold, they are the second most prevalent reason Americans miss work. In its most recent report on absenteeism, The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons found that 25.9 million people lost an average of 7.2 days of work due to back pain.

My project will investigate how immigrant workers, both those with disability protection and those who are undocumented, deal with back pain. I’ll look at controversial and sometimes dangerous alternative treatments. I’ll also look at what happens to those sentenced by the condition to a life of stillness and dependency.

Most importantly, the project will look ahead. What can Latino workers expect in the current anti-immigrant environment, with the Republican pledge to repeal and replace Obamacare underway?

Are unions and employers looking after their workers? Should there be mandatory job training to curb injury rates? Who can workers turn to if they are hurt on the job?

I’m hoping this collaboration will highlight ways to ease the pain of those who carry our weight on broken backs.

[Photo by USDA via Flickr.]

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