Following is a translated and excerpted interview with Mr. Xiang, an immigrant restaurant worker who was injured on the job, conducted by the Boston-based Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) as part of its Immigrant Workers Oral History Project. The interview was conducted by Lydia Lowe and Man Wai Yung.
Q: What was your job and how did you become injured?
A: I was working in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. In a Chinese restaurant, there aren't clear job descriptions. It's like, if anything needs help, then everyone is expected to help out. ...I was hired to be an appetizer cooker. Besides that, we also have some other side work to do.
Q: Can you describe your work environment?
A: The workplace was OK, not too good. You basically work 60 hours a week, from about 11:00 am to 8:30 pm. But on the weekends, you work eleven or eleven-and-a-half hours. The boss only pays for workers' compensation insurance, not health insurance. But if anything happened, they wouldn't want to call an ambulance. They'd just use their own car to bring you to the doctor, because the boss needs to pay $500-$700 dollars whenever they call an ambulance. But the patient would not have the evidence that an ambulance was called to prove that he got hurt at the workplace.
Q: How did you get injured at your job?
A: We were always very responsible in our work. Whatever help was needed, we were willing to help, because we didn't have much understanding of labor issues. So, whatever the boss told us to do, then we'd just do it. A few times, the boss ordered a whole trailer of rice that the delivery workers couldn't move down to the basement…. the boss wouldn't let them in. So, this work was done by the kitchen workers. Of course, all this time, we were working ten or more hours a day. So, day in and day out, we're doing this work, and each of those bags of rice weighs a ton!
Then one day, I was bringing out a big side of beef and hurt my back and spinal cord. No one dared to call the ambulance, because they were afraid that the boss would fire them . . . So, I just took a Tylenol and rested for an hour. When I felt a little better, I went home.
The next morning, when I had trouble getting up, I went to see a doctor. So, this is why I had no emergency record. Because of this, the insurance company rejected my case, saying that this wasn't a workplace injury.
At first, the boss told me that all my medical bills would be fully covered. But before I had recovered, after two weeks, the boss didn't give me any information about workers' compensation insurance. He just told me to go to a certain doctor chosen by the insurance company. During the check-up, the doctor kept saying that there was no problem with my bones. He meant that the bones were not broken. But that doesn't mean that everything's fine, that the muscles and the nerves are okay . . . So the insurance company's doctor said I was fine; I can go back to work. My boss did not pay a penny of my medical bills, even though I was injured at work. Over ten coworkers saw it. But they didn't dare to testify as my witness, because they could be fired. The one person who signed the (witness) form for me was fired too.
The Treatment of an Injured Worker
Q: Did your boss cover any part of your wages when you were out?
A: I couldn't work for a year. ... I was injured on July 7, and he paid me that month's wages and one more month, then he fired me. So, I felt this was really unfair, that he wasn't taking responsibility as an employer.
Q: What was your experience with workers' compensation? How did you apply, how did you fight with your boss?
A: I applied for workers' compensation through CPA introducing me to this law, so I came to understand the process through CPA. Then I went and found a lawyer. The lawyer took about a year to close the case. A lot of Chinese restaurant workers do not understand workers' rights in this area. Many Chinese go to Chinese restaurants to work, and they're very seldom given forms to fill out or told about labor laws. In the restaurant where I worked, they didn't tell anyone or post any laws or work rules in Chinese.
Q: Did your employer tell you to come back to work?
A: At that time, I was not too clear. So, he said, you can come back and do light work--do what you can, and if you can't handle it, you can go home… I thought that even if my back is still in pain, my hands can work. I could sit there and work. But after about a week, I found I really could not keep working. Then, my boss fired me. He said the insurance company helped you to get examined, and they said you're fine. So, if you don't come back to work, I'll fire you. But from the beginning I really couldn't work, and I still had my doctor's record to prove it.
Q: What emotional or financial impact did the injury have on you and your family?
A: Well, it had a big impact. Because any family has a certain monthly budget. I was not contributing any income to my family. So for all of our monthly expenses, everything depended on my wife. And I still needed to pay out money for doctor's visits. It had an impact on our family relationships. Because when you don't have money, you're always broke, you'll definitely have fighting at home. And because I wasn't well, that definitely had an emotional impact. It was such a long time; I couldn't work for a year. So it was a heavy, heavy burden, and it started to affect our marriage . . . until the case was closed. Now I'm still seeing a doctor on my own, and I'm feeling better. It's only now that I've found a mainstream job. The workday is shorter; it's only eight hours a day. It's not so hard on my back.
Q: What type of changes should be made in the workers' compensation system?
A: In terms of workers' compensation, I'm not that familiar with the legal issues. But I feel that it dragged on too long. From the injury on, the whole medical process was very difficult. Very difficult. It seems like the methods they use at the hospital to treat a workers' compensation case are more complicated… Like when I asked for the MRI, and they said my bones were fine. And I told them, I didn't want to check on my bones, I wanted to have my nerves and cartilage examined. And they said, you don't need to do that. I know the hospital doesn't like to take this responsibility. Because after the tests, the doctor has to sign for it. I had to demand that test over and over. Finally, after at least five requests, one doctor referred me to another. That last doctor couldn't refer me on, so he finally helped me.
Q: What do you think of the workers' compensation system?
A: It could be that I didn't know how to find this information that made me feel it was so difficult, or it could be the process itself is too difficult. It's like going to the unemployment office. You already have lost your job. You would think that now with computers they can better serve people by matching them with employment or job training information. But I went back and forth to the unemployment office more than ten times before I found the right person to talk to. That person is bilingual, but he's the only one. And it's only then that I could get help completing the application form.
Q: What did you learn through your experience with your injury and with workers' compensation?
A: That's hard to say . . . I learned that whenever you have an accident (at work), you should call 911 first. That is the most basic lesson. The government should do more to educate working people about labor laws. In each restaurant, the government should help more workers understand these laws. There are a lot of labor laws--the government can write these up and give them to different restaurants and companies. A lot of people don't speak English, so why can't the government write up these laws in different languages? Then you might see less problems with worker injuries.
Q: Why do you participate in the CPA Workers Center?
A: Working in the restaurants ten hours a day, you don't know much about what's going on out there. But coming to the Workers Center every Saturday, I learned a lot of information and get a lot of support . . . I hope that I can motivate more workers to understand their rights, and that I can contribute more work to benefit the Chinese community. To help everyone know about their rights and not let the old ways hold us back.