Mourners at a vigil for Dember Chavez, who died on a Nashville construction site. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Across the street from The Griff, a luxurious apartment complex in Germantown, protesters dressed in black held flowers and crosses in memory of the Hispanic construction workers that have died over the last two years in Nashville’s booming construction industry.
Across from the crowd stood a towering chain link fence preventing trespassers from entering another apartment complex under construction.
Two women then stepped up to a podium. One held a young child. The other translated for the mother.
“For those of you who don’t know, my husband died right here on this spot during a work day that lasted more than 12 hours,” said the translator on behalf of Veronica Leyva, who stood by silently.
More than five months ago, Pedro Omar Leyva died of a stroke while working on a construction site, a condition brought on by harsh working conditions, according to his widow and advocates for better working conditions among construction workers.
In the vigil organized by Worker’s Dignity, Cecilia Prado, co-director, drew attention once again to the Hispanic workers who have died over the last two years amid conditions that she and others say were brought on by Nashville’s booming growth, encouraging construction companies to bypass safety procedures and better working conditions.
Behind Prado, pictures of five Hispanic construction workers lay among scattered flowers.
Among them were Leyva, who died in November 2021; Gustavo Ramirez, a 16-year-old who died after falling off a scaffold in June 2020; and Dember Chavez, an 18-year-old who had a heart attack and died in April 2021 while building a garage for the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency.
While Leyva did not die because of an accident, his widow alleged Leyva’s work schedule led to his stroke. Leyva was prevented from having breaks or food during long work days, and he was reluctant to ask for fear of being fired, she said.
The Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or TOSHA, does not generally conduct inspections when a person dies for medical reasons while working, absent proof that worksite conditions contributed to the death, according to Chris Cannon, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development.
Leyva left behind four children who don’t understand why their father never came home from work, said his widow.
“We must be treated with respect and equal rights rather than be treated like a tool for work,” she said.
Dember Chavez’s father also spoke about the conditions his son experienced in the eight months he worked for WASCO, Inc., a masonry contractor.
On April 27, 2021 at noon, Chavez had a seizure, stopped breathing and his heart stopped beating, according to a fatality inspection report by TOSHA. Chavez was then transported to a hospital.
Dember Chavez Sr., who passed his name down to his son, said he was not alerted until 2 p.m., or informed which hospital his son was taken to.
Chavez was pronounced dead at 5 p.m., with the medical examiner noting broken ribs due to CPR. Chavez had no other injuries, but the autopsy noted he suffered from an abnormal heart condition. Chavez had not previously been diagnosed with any health conditions, according to his father.
Chavez’s death was listed as a heart attack.
In the wake of his son’s death, Chavez Sr. was first in disbelief, before becoming furious. His son had been a normal, healthy 18-year-old boy interested in cars and hanging out with his friends in his time off, he said.
He never received a call from anyone at the company about what had happened, nor did they convey condolences, he said.
“They do not see us as people,” he said, blaming harsh working conditions and a lack of empathy from site managers for his son’s death.
In the past five years, the construction contract WASCO, Inc. was inspected by TOSHA three times and was issued a serious citation during each inspection, according to a summary of the company’s history by TOSHA.
H&C Concrete, Leyva’s employer, did not returned messages seeking comment.
WASCO, Inc. later commented on Chavez’s death and said it was treated as a job site fatality.
“WASCO, Inc. is a family and (tries) to treat all our folks as such. What happened to Dember was tragic and our thoughts and prayers are with his family,” said Brian Procter, spokesperson for WASCO.
Nashville: a dangerous city for construction workers
After 16-year-old Ramirez’s death, Councilmember Sandra Sepulveda and other advocates for worker’s rights sped up their efforts to pass legislation to prevent Metro Nashville from awarding contracts to companies with violations under OSHA.
She cited the Build a Better South report, which found that Nashville was one of the most dangerous cities in the South for construction workers.
In the study conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Workers Defense Project and Partnership for Working Families, surveyors found that the construction industry coped with a shortage of skilled workers by hiring immigrants, some of whom reported low wages, wage theft and harsh working conditions.
The report, published in 2017, cites Tennessee Department of Labor’s data showing a spike in construction, which led to increased injuries and fatalities on construction sites throughout the state, although the majority occurred in Nashville. In the first half 2016, 50% of all work-place fatalities occurred on construction sites, an increase from 8% in previous years, according to the study.
Surveyors found that non-fatal injuries among construction workers are two to nearly five times higher than injury rates reported by the Bureau of Labor statistics, which relies on employer-reported data.
The Build a Better South report also notes that their findings are different from OSHA’s injury and fatality reports. Surveyors included temporary and part-time workers and expanded on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s definition of injuries to include illnesses, suggesting that injuries may be substantially underreported to government agencies.
According to OSHA, there were just seven workplace-related deaths in Tennessee from 2020 to 2021, which ranged from electrocution to crushes from plywood.
Sepulveda also blamed subcontractors and believed contractors were using them to avoid legal liability, and to avoid paying workers compensation.
Ramirez’s family filed a lawsuit in 2021 against subcontractor Stover & Sons Contractors, Inc., general contractor D.F. Chase, Inc., and EZ Distributing, alleging their reckless behavior led to the teenager’s death. Ramirez had been working without a harness, and D.F. Chase later confirmed that Ramirez had been certified to work on the scaffold despite being a minor.
Sepulveda’s legislation eventually passed unanimously in the Metro Nashville City Council in March 2021, but a bill signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee on April 22, 2021 prohibited local governments from requiring contractors to adhere to health and safety standards that exceed current state and federal regulations. The law also prohibits contractors from being responsible for subcontractors actions.
Two years later, workers continue to die while building Nashville from poor working conditions, said Sepulveda.
“These are things that we in the community have heard over and over again,” said Sepulveda.
“‘Sometimes I work seven days a week, sometimes I work long hours. It’s morning when I go to work and it’s night when I’m going home.’ They barely spend any time with their family, because they have to make a living and pay bills in a city that they’re being priced out of.”
“That’s the reality that we are living in this city,” she added.
A vigil ends, but the grief remains
At the vigil, members of Una Esperanza Viva, a church in North Nashville, sang hymns in honor of Leyva. Francisco Martinez, the pastor, said he had known Leyva for a long time, and his death marked the fourth funeral of construction workers he’s attended in the past five months. He believes Hispanic workers are not reporting harsh working conditions because of their lack of legal documentation or for fear of losing their jobs.
“But we know there is a lot of help to give out, and it doesn’t matter if they don’t have legal documentation,” he said.
As the vigil concluded, local residents and tourists arrived at the lively bars around the corner. The protestors dispersed, and Sepulveda expressed her condolences to Leyva’s widow.
“It’s hard looking someone in the face knowing that we could be doing more and we’re not,” she said.
But still, Sepulveda made her a promise.
“I’m going to continue to push and push my colleagues to do more. It shouldn’t be this hard, and one death is more than enough,” she said.
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