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Labor groups call for immigrant protections in workplace fatality investigation

José Canaca Bonilla, left, Gilberto Mónico Fernández and Jose "Chuy" Olivares died Monday in a construction accident.
José Canaca Bonilla, left, Gilberto Mónico Fernández and Jose "Chuy" Olivares died Jan. 2 in a scaffolding collapse.

When the scaffolding collapsed at the Hanover East Morehead apartments site on Jan. 2, many of the people who witnessed the deaths of Jesus “Chuy" Olivares, Gilberto Mónico Fernández and José Canaca Bonilla were immigrant workers.

That has complicated investigation efforts, according to a letter sent this week to the North Carolina Department of Labor on behalf of 17 workers and immigrant rights organizations.

Ashley Hawkins with the Charlotte Metrolina Labor Council says many workers have been hesitant to come forward, afraid of facing possible retaliation or deportation.

“We have heard from workers that they were told not to share videos, that they were told not to participate. And we do not believe that OSHA has talked to all workers who were present at the time of the accident,” Hawkins said.

The labor council has asked the Department of Labor to utilize deferred action, a measure that would protect undocumented workers from facing removal proceedings as a consequence of their cooperation with authorities.

“We would like them to participate with the Department of Homeland Security in enacting this protection for these workers. They're not required to. It is optional. And we just think it would go a long way to protect the workers that have been involved in this incident,” she said.

“It would be a big step to make those workers feel protected because so many don't come forward because they are afraid of immigration action.”

The Department of Labor confirmed receipt of the letter sent by advocacy groups and said it was under review by the Occupational Safety and Health Division.

The OSH investigation remains open and includes Old North State Masonry LLC, Hanover R.S. East Construction LLC and Friends Masonry Construction LLC. The department declined to comment further.

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Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.