More than a dozen workers who contracted a rare illness at a southern Minnesota meat-processing plant are caught up in a complex and sometimes slow-moving workers' compensation system.
The workers were among 21 employees at Quality Pork Processing in Austin diagnosed two years ago with a neurological disease that health officials later found resulted from breathing tiny bits of pig brains.
The workers, including some who were working in the United States illegally, made claims for medical expenses and lost wages.
Minnesota is one of nearly two dozen states that specifically allow undocumented workers coverage under the state's workers' compensation laws.
All the workers have received medical benefits, but only some have gotten anything for lost wages or disability. Thirteen of the sickened workers still have claims pending, according to plant officials.
Miriam Angeles Perez, 27, is among the undocumented workers trying to navigate the workers' compensation process. Since her diagnosis, she still struggles to care for her daughters, who are 5 years old and 5 months old.
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"It's very hard to think that before I could do anything," Perez said in Spanish at her home in Austin. "I could work. I could take care of my daughters. Now, even though I want to, I can't do that. I can't carry them. I can't play with them. If they fall, I can't even lift them up."
Perez worked at Quality Pork Processing for three years using a phony Social Security number and fake name. She worked near the "head table," where workers used compressed air to blast out brains from pigs' heads. The pressurized air created an aerosol mist of brain matter.
Doctors at the Mayo Clinic, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Center for Disease Control found that breathing in the brain matter prompted an auto-immune response in workers' bodies. That means their bodies began to attack the nerves in their arms and legs, and sometimes even the central nervous system.
"In my case, I still have problems," Perez said. "The only thing I can claim is my medical expenses. That's the only thing they offer me."
Perez takes steroid medication to calm the pain in her arms, legs and back.
While her medical expenses have been paid, Perez is still waiting for other forms of compensation.
In 2008, several months after she was diagnosed with the disease, the company offered her $20,000 settlement. She said she didn't accept it because it would have made her ineligible for long-term disability.
Perez said the offer made no sense to her because doctors hadn't determined her final medical disability status.
"I saw that as a joke," she said. "It's truly a pittance for the damage they did to us. It's practically nothing. That's not going to help me any."
Later that year, the company fired her. The company told her it was because they discovered she was working in the country illegally.
Kelly Wadding, chief executive officer of Quality Pork Processing, confirmed the company fired two workers after their diagnosis for working with false documents. Wadding said their firing had nothing to do with their medical diagnosis. In fact, he said, the firm continues to work with them and everyone else who filed a workers' comp claim.
"The people that were terminated continue to get benefits under the work comp law," Wadding said. "Just because they're illegal, they still qualify for benefits. And we have paid out benefits to those people."
Wadding said the whole thing has taken a long time because the worker's comp process is slow, not because some of the workers were undocumented. "These work comp cases, they can go on for a long period of time," Wadding said. "They have these benefits coming. Not only do we want to make sure people get the benefits they have coming, but it's also the law, and we've got to follow the law as well."
Rochester attorney Thomas Patterson agrees it's a tedious process.
Patterson represents 10 of the plant workers. He won't comment on his clients' legal status or any individual cases. The plant's workers' comp insurance carrier was American Home Assurance Company, a unit of American International Group Inc. In 2009, AIG renamed its global property and casualty insurer business Chartis.
But he said some of his clients have received wage loss benefits and all of them have received medical benefits. Some are even back at the plant, working lighter-duty jobs.
Patterson said other benefits for unlawful workers are less clear. These include whether an undocumented worker is entitled to help finding another job from a rehabilitation consultant.
"They don't have appropriate documents," Patterson said. "How does a (consultant), operating within the Minnesota workers' compensation system, help them find the next work when the next work essentially is illegal?"
Patterson said doctors at Mayo are still working to determine some of his clients' partial disability rating. That will help determine how much they're compensated for long-term disability. Patterson said it's hard to know exactly how much money that will be.
"It's really a difficult question to answer," he said. "They don't all have the same residual symptomology. Some are functioning significantly better than others. It's too hard to quantify."
Workers' compensation programs vary by state. In 2003, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that undocumented workers are entitled to all benefits under the state's law. This includes wage benefits as long as the injured worker continues to search for another job.
State officials estimate as many as 85,000 immigrants live in Minnesota illegally.
While most states have broad workers comp laws, undocumented workers are still at a disadvantage, said Rebecca Smith, coordinator of the immigrant worker justice project at the New York-based National Employment Law Project.
"We do see employers who hire employees with a sort of wink and a nod toward the documents that they produce, or even without asking for documents to determine that a worker is unauthorized," Smith said. "(They) don't really care what their immigration status is, until someone is injured or until a claim is filed or wages that are due or discrimination, and the suddenly employers take a very keen interest in knowing the worker's immigration status and workers get fired."
For Perez, the wait continues. She found a job as a waitress at a Mexican restaurant earlier this month. She said she understands that working again could undermine her long-term disability claim. But she said her family needs the money and she was desperate for work, despite the pain.