July 29, 2009

Homicidal Employers

Back in May, we blogged the appalling story of Albania Deleon, a legal immigrant who founded Environmental Compliance Training (ECT), the largest asbestos removal training school in New England. Despite the fact that the training only requires 32 hours, she frequently sold certificates of completion to "students" who never attended classes. In other words, she sent these marginal workers - many of them undocumented - into asbestos-ridden jobsites with no preparation whatsoever.

Well, Albania, meet Chong-mun Chae, an illegal immigrant who ran a Queens-based asbestos removal company apparently modeled on ECT standards. Chae claimed to have only one employee, a receptionist. In other words, his company removed asbestos from job sites all over New York, but he accomplished this without any workers. By calling his workforce "independent contractors," he avoided workers comp premiums to the tune of $1.6 million. As we read in the New York Times, Chae has been sentenced to 4 years in prison, to be followed by deportation to South Korea.

Chae avoided detection for over a decade by frequently changing the name of the company. He was not without a sense of humor - let's call it diabolical - as one of his company's incarnations was "Charlie Brown Services." His premium avoidance scheme was exposed when an investigator read a report filed by Chae stating that he had no workers. You might think that a connection would easily be made between a company with hundreds of thousands in billings and no payroll, but that was not the case. In our collective haste to get rid of asbestos, we try not to think very much about the people actually performing the work.

Killer Jobs
Chae, like Albania Deleon, is getting off lightly. After all, he has only been convicted of insurance fraud. At some point in the not-too-distant future, when Chae is enjoying his retirement in South Korea, he will be guilty of murder, as his phantom workforce and their families succomb to debilitating lung disease. We don't know who they are or where they live. Collectively, perhaps we don't really care.

Entrepreneurs like Chae and Deleon exploit the margins of the working world, removing a deadly menace in a deadly manner. They offer jobs that pay relatively well, to a workforce that labors in the shadows. Chae and Deleon are nothing less than murderers. It's too bad that our system of justice is incapable of holding them accountable for their deeds.

If hell operated a dating service, surely the decrepid Chae and the fugitive Deleon would be a match: at 71, he is a lot older, where Deleon is a single mother with a now-abandoned 3 year old child. Despite the difference in ages, however, they have a lot in common. They have ruined hundreds of lives, wreaked havoc on thousands of families and reaped the profits of a corrupt business scheme. With values like those, age is surely no barrier.



I monitored compliance with asbestos removal operations for the City of Milwaukee in the early 1990s. Every removal contractor handling EPA regulated quantities of asbestos - be it for public, residential, industrial or commercial projects - were required to pull a permit to do the work. All sites received at least one visit and many sites were visited ultiple times.

Even among these regulated operators, it was common to find serious problems that resulted in worker exposures and poorly controlled removal resulting in asbestos contamination of the removal site.

The City eventually curtailed this program because it was deemed 'duplicative', even though no other government agency systematically investigated removal projects.

Organizations like ECT and others can only prosper when building owners 'conspire' with these rogue operators (i.e., "how do they offer such low bids?") and when regulatory agencies do little or nothing to inspect and enforce regulations.

If Chae did indeed have work comp insurance, what were the underwriters thinking when they approved coverage for only one employee for an asbestos removal company?


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This page contains a single entry by Jon Coppelman published on July 29, 2009 11:08 AM.

When lightning strikes was the previous entry in this blog.

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