A month after Baltimore bridge collapse, Nebraskans are reminded of immigrant workforce conditions at home

April 26, 2024, 6 a.m. ·

A construction hard hat
Immigrant workers often face high risk working conditions in the U.S. and in Nebraska, including work in construction and agriculture.(Photo by Umit Yildirim/Unsplash)

Listen To This Story

It’s been a month since six construction workers, all Latino immigrants, died when the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed in Baltimore.

They were from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. Nebraska advocates said the anniversary serves as an important reminder that the state should focus on safe working conditions for immigrants, many who came to the U.S. for better opportunities.

Lina Traslavina Stover, the executive director of the Heartland Workers Center, said it’s not the lack of law that can worsen immigrants’ working conditions, rather the lack of education regarding workers' rights.

“Once they know what they need to do, and also what the employers have to do to ensure their safety, that builds power in the in the workforce,” she said.

Antonio Lopez immigrated from Guatemala. He formerly worked in a factory and now works as a community advocate in Fremont. He said the bridge collapse points to the need for an important conversation here in the state.

“I think that people can think a lot of things, but in my case, I think maybe we have to improve safety in our jobs,” he said in Spanish. “Much of the time in our jobs, many of us immigrants do not know our rights. We as immigrants have rights in this country and at the same time, people look at us Hispanic people and violate our rights.”

"It's a reminder, and I think that we need to do a better job reminding ourselves on how embedded in our economy, immigrants really are."

-Lina Traslavina Stover, executive director Heartland Workers Center

That’s why the Heartland Workers Center coordinates trainings like bilingual Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) trainings, civic engagement and leadership development. When the bridge collapse caused the death of those workers, the center and the people it serves were confronted with the reality of why they do what they do.

Traslavina Stover added that fear regarding immigration status also complicates working conditions.

Lopez experienced this fear himself when a former supervisor asked him to do something at the factory that could have risked his life. He said at times, immigrant workers worry employers will use their fear to motivate them to work in unsafe conditions.

“The reality is that with the immigrant community, one of the things that we're seeing is that these laws are not always followed," Traslavina Stover added. "And instead, there are some threats to the immigrant of what I'm going to call the exploitation of fear."

Worker deaths in the agriculture industry make up a large portion of the state’s fatal work injuries. Another large portion of deaths are within construction. In the U.S., Hispanic people make up about a third of that workforce. As of 2021, nearly 43% of farm workers in the U.S. were immigrants.

In this election year, immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border is a major topic amongst both presidential and congressional candidates.

"My call to action here is pay attention to the narratives and let's be critical of the narratives that are out there," Traslavina Stover said.