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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Children, injured and dying in one of the most dangerous jobs

In an image provided by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, a Louisiana worksite where Crisanto Campos, 17, was electrocuted while using a forklift to raise a pallet of shingles onto a rooftop in 2022. It was his first time operating the machine. (Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office via The New York Times)

By Hannah Dreier, Brent McDonald, Nicole Salazar, Annie Correal and Carson Kessler

On social media, they call themselves ruferitos.

They wake before dawn to be driven to distant job sites, sometimes crossing state lines. They carry heavy bundles of shingles that leave their arms shaking. They work through heat waves on black-tar rooftops that scorch their hands.

Federal law bars minors from roofing because it is so dangerous, but migrant children are doing this work across the United States, The New York Times found. Over more than a year, the Times spoke with more than 100 child roofers working in 23 states, including some who began at elementary-school age.

In New Orleans, Juan Nasario said he had been replacing roofs during 12-hour shifts nearly every day since arriving from Guatemala four years ago, when he was 10. He would like to go to school or at least join a soccer team, but he needs to pay rent to his older cousin.

In Dallas, Diego Osbaldo Hernández started roofing at 15, after coming to the United States from Mexico last year to live with an older friend. His jobs take him all across Texas, but his favorite place to work is San Antonio. “They are the shortest houses,” he said.

A residential construction boom across the South and an increase in natural disasters has intensified demand for roofers, industry experts said. At the same time, young people have been crossing the southern border alone in record numbers: Nearly 400,000 children have come to the United States since 2021 without their parents, and a majority have ended up working, the Times has reported in a series of articles this year.

The most common job for these children is under-the-table work in roofing and construction, according to teachers, social workers, labor organizers and federal investigators. Children are replacing the roofs of big-box stores, government-owned buildings and campus housing, as well as private homes, the Times found.

Roofing work is plentiful and pays better than many of the other jobs these children can get. But it is also dangerous: One slip can be fatal.

The federal government pledged to crack down on child labor this year. But the workforce continues to grow as fast as children arrive, anxious to find a way to support themselves and help their families.

A 30-foot plunge

At 15, Antoni Padilla was helping crews replace roofs in South Carolina and posting TikTok videos that captured the sweeping views from the rooftops where he worked — as well as the dizzying heights.

Like many child roofers, Antoni had come to the United States to help his family escape extreme poverty. One of five siblings, he left his one-room home in Honduras in 2021, and moved in with an uncle near Myrtle Beach.

Roofing left Antoni little free time, but his earnings covered room and board, and he started sending money home. In March 2022, he was working on the roof of a beach house, inching backward as he collected old shingles, when he slipped and plummeted about 30 feet to a cement patio.

As Antoni lay in a coma at a hospital, with severe brain trauma and a breathing tube in his neck, his family said their goodbyes over speakerphone. His skull was fractured, a lung was punctured and he was bleeding internally throughout his body.

“Very poor outcome anticipated,” his surgeon wrote.

But after three months, he woke up, and the doctors said he could leave. No rehabilitation facility would accept him without health insurance. Unable to speak or stand, he went back to the trailer he had been sharing with his uncle’s family. He stayed inside for several months.

Severe injuries

Children working on construction sites are six times as likely to be killed as minors doing other work, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Roofing is particularly risky; it is the most dangerous job for minors other than agricultural work, studies show.

But death is not the only hazard. Labor organizers and social workers say they are seeing more migrant children suffer serious injuries on roofing crews in recent years. A 15-year-old in Florida was burned when he slipped from a roof and onto a vat of hot tar. A 16-year-old fell off a roof in Arkansas and shattered his back. A child in Illinois stepped through a skylight and fractured his spine.

Even falls that do not result in major injuries instill a sense of dread in some young workers. Cristian Marcos has been working on multimillion-dollar homes in the Miami area since he arrived from Guatemala in 2021, when he was 12. He once fell from a second story and walked away with only bruises.

“When you fall, you might be fine or you might be dead,” he said in a whisper.

When children get hurt, contractors often refuse to pay medical bills. Terry Coonan, who runs a human rights center at Florida State University, often comes across children after they have been discarded by their employers.

One 15-year-old boy from Central America who had been traveling around the country with a crew boss was abandoned last year after he was injured on a work site. The boy was found alone and crying in a ditch.

“He was of no more use,” Coonan said.

9 workers, 6 harnesses

About 100 roofers are killed on the job each year, most often in falls, according to the Department of Labor. The government does not publish data about injuries or fatalities among child roofers — a category of workers that is not supposed to exist.

But the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is part of the Labor Department, sometimes finds them while investigating workplace accidents.

Juan Ortiz, 15, was installing metal roofing at a plant in Alabama in 2019 when a patch of insulation gave way and he fell 50 feet onto a concrete floor. After his death, OSHA found that the employer had “nine laborers on the crew, but only six harnesses.”

Andrés Toma, 16, was not clipped into a harness when he fell to his death while replacing a roof in Florida this past April. “This incident may have been prevented,” OSHA wrote. His older sister said the family had not known he was roofing, just that he had found a good job that paid well. He had been earning $70 a day.

Crisanto Campos, 17, was electrocuted while raising a pallet of shingles onto a rooftop in Louisiana last year. It was his first time operating a forklift. The OSHA report said another worker had survived a similar “near miss” the previous day.

None of those deaths resulted in child labor fines.

Children find roofing work through churches, in Facebook groups and at day labor sites, where workers of all ages gather in the mornings in hopes of being chosen for jobs. They sometimes say they are older than 18, but subcontractors rarely ask them to prove it.

Itzel Sánchez, a subcontractor building roofs in South Carolina, said she hires underage workers because there are not enough adults willing to do the work, and she doesn’t like to turn away children who are in need. They are also much cheaper to employ.

Sánchez said she does not worry about getting in trouble for hiring minors. She said workplace inspectors do not often come around.

Some crew bosses understand the risk to their young workers and keep newly hired children on the ground, picking up discarded shingles and hoisting bags of new ones onto ladders. But there is a powerful incentive to get on the roof: Laying down shingles pays more than double what helpers earn.

When they do get onto roofs, children said, they often work without training or the required safety gear. Some rely on dangling ropes to keep their balance. Others described struggling to keep their footing while shuttling bags of shingles.

“One is OK,” said Miguel Santos, who started this work in New Orleans at 16. “But two is very, very heavy.”

Cracks in Enforcement

As more migrant children enter roofing, the Department of Labor, which is in charge of enforcing federal child labor laws, has not kept up. The department has brought an average of seven cases a year over the past decade, imposing less than $6,000 in fines on average.

In a statement, the department noted that it had 731 investigators overseeing 11 million workplaces. Jessica Looman, administrator of the department’s wage and hour division, said the department was requesting more funding from Congress to protect migrant children.

“Stories like the ones we are seeing in roofing and many other industries are exactly why we have stepped up our child labor enforcement,” Looman said.

Even when OSHA responds to accidents that kill or maim migrant children, the Times found that inspectors sometimes fail to follow policy and alert child labor investigators. Other times, investigators open cases but then let them drop.

After questions from the Times, the department is revisiting several cases, including two fatalities.

After the Accident

As soon as Antoni regained some of his speech, he began asking when he could go back to Honduras.

He was likely eligible for workers’ compensation, but the company that had been hired to do the roofing job had subcontracted it out to a smaller company, which subcontracted it again. The three contractors spent a year arguing over who should be held liable. They are in the process of settling. (State labor investigators cited one of the companies for violating child labor laws. The fine was $500.)

But Antoni’s fall severely impaired his memory, speech and mobility, and it is unclear how his family will support him in Honduras. They live hours from the kind of medical care he needs.

For now, Antoni lives in the same trailer. His uncle was killed in a car crash this spring while driving to get Antoni’s anti-seizure medication, and so he relies on his aunt for needs as basic as walking down the front steps.

His parents share the hope that their son will return from South Carolina but have struggled to help him understand that he needs to stay put until they can figure out how to care for him.

They check on him twice a day, and Antoni counts down the hours to their calls. He smiles and laughs when talking to them, and speaks with flashes of the lively child he used to be. “I miss you so much,” his father said on a recent call. “But you have to hang on. We’ll see each other again.”

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