Neehaar Gandhi

Around a month after Edgar Becerra arrived in New Haven from Guatemala on a work visa sponsored by MDF Painting & Power Washing, Becerra fell from a 32-foot ladder while on the job. Weeks later he fell from a two-story window while working. The falls landed him in the hospital on multiple occasions. 

Suffering from hip pain and spinal injuries, Becerra says he reported his workplace injuries to MDF Painting. Instead of providing worker’s compensation, MDF fired him and tried to send him on a flight back to Guatemala days later. 

Since his arrival in New Haven, Becerra has been living at 200 Peck St. in Fair Haven, at a house owned by his boss, Mark DeFrancesco, along with at least 19 other migrant workers who had come from Guatemala on H-2B visas sponsored by MDF. While still living at 200 Peck St. Becerra filed a workers’ compensation complaint on Oct. 23; two weeks later, his boss and landlord, DeFrancesco, served him and another tenant-employee, Josue Mauricio Araña, an eviction notice. 

Becerra and MDF have been embroiled in two legal disputes: Becerra’s worker’s compensation case and DeFrancesco’s eviction claim. On Monday, the Connecticut Superior Court denied the eviction, but left the door open for DeFrancesco to evict Becerra and Araña through a different method. Becerra is awaiting his worker’s compensation hearing next week. 

The News spoke to two experts who said that obstacles to reporting make it difficult to quantify workers’ compensation abuse, but cases like Becerra’s are part of a wider pattern of thin protections for migrant workers.

Tyrese Ford, Becerra’s housing court lawyer, said he hopes Becerra’s case raises awareness about the ways migrant workers in New Haven remain vulnerable. 

“Hypothetically, if Edgar had never reached out to us and let us know the situation, would the public have known about their situation?” Ford said. “How would we have known that was going on around the corner on 200 Peck St.?” 

Becerra suffered multiple injuries, allegedly slept on the street after eviction 

MDF’s website advertises a close-knit team, urging workers to join a company that’s like an “extended family.” But Becerra’s experience with MDF, as he described it, paints a different picture. 

Becerra arrived in New Haven in July 2023 on a temporary work visa sponsored by MDF, slated to expire on Nov. 30. When Becerra arrived at 200 Peck St., he discovered at least 19 other MDF workers from Guatemala already living in the house, according to documents filed by his attorney. According to Becerra, no bed was available and he slept on the floor of a third-floor bedroom. DeFrancesco denied this at trial, saying he provided the tenants with mattresses. MDF paid Becerra almost $17 an hour; DeFrancesco set rent at $75 a week. 

In August, Becerra fell from a 32-foot ladder while painting for MDF and suffered leg and hip injuries, according to documents submitted by his attorney. Becerra said he reported the injury to MDF, who required him to continue working. 

MDF and Mark DeFrancesco’s attorney did not respond to multiple requests to comment. 

In September, Becerra said he fell head-first from a second-floor window while working; MDF again allegedly ignored his injury and told him to return to work. 

At the trial, Becerra claimed that MDF did not provide safety equipment, such as helmets, gloves or cable, to its workers, according to the New Haven Independent

The documents introduced by Becerra’s attorney claim that on Sep. 26, Becerra, “unable to manage the pain,” was admitted to Yale New Haven Hospital and diagnosed with a lower spine and hip injury. The next day, MDF allegedly told Becerra they would fire him and send him back to Guatemala if he did not return to work. When he did not return to work, Becerra was fired.

On Sep. 30, Lisa Hollingsworth, DeFrancesco’s sister and a principle of MDF, texted Becerra telling him DeFrancesco had bought plane tickets for him back to Guatemala the following day. 

“Great news. Mark approved to pay for your flight,” the text read, instructing Becerra to “pack and have your things ready,” according to the court decision. The next day, Hollingsworth texted Becerra the flight confirmation code. Becerra did not board the flight. 

Becerra alleges that in October, MDF changed the lock code to the Peck Street residence. Unable to access the house, Becerra and Araña slept outside for two days before contacting New Haven Police, who ordered MDF to allow Becerra and Araña back into the house. During the trial, DeFrancesco claimed that the lockout was purely accidental, according to the New Haven Independent

Becerra filed a report of injury with the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Commission on Oct. 23; his workers’ compensation case is still pending. Around this time, Becerra was hospitalized for over a week for work-related injuries. 

On Nov. 6, MDF served Becerra and Araña an eviction notice, ordering the men to leave 200 Peck St. within the week. In late November, DeFrancesco and his attorney Joshua Brown filed an eviction complaint against Becerra and Araña in court, officially beginning the legal dispute that culminated in Monday’s decision. 

Housing court denies eviction, for now 

The eviction dispute was heard first on Jan. 11 and again on Jan. 16. DeFrancesco claimed that both tenants were bound by weekly, oral lease agreements. 

On Monday, Judge Walter Spader issued a decision siding with Becerra and Araña, ruling that MDF had not proved the existence and terms of a week-to-week oral lease.

However, the decision noted that Becerra and Araña have not paid DeFrancesco for the continued residence in the house, leaving open the opportunity for MDF to file another eviction claim under “right or privilege terminated.” 

A footnote in the decision stated that there was nothing to suggest that MDF’s eviction case was retaliation against Becerra’s workers’ compensation claim — a major part of Becerra’s defense. 

“Did this decision inch us toward justice? I would say yes,” said Ford, Becerra’s attorney at New Haven Legal Assistance Association. “Did it do enough? No. But it did provide us with more time and opportunity to seek justice.” 

Becerra’s case example of limited migrant protections

According to Glenn Formica, the attorney representing Becerra in his workers’ compensation case, workers’ compensation can be one of the most expensive components of a construction job, and construction companies often use undocumented migrant workers to skirt those costs. Formica said he has encountered many undocumented workers who fear deportation if they file a workers’ compensation complaint against their employer. 

While Becerra came to New Haven on an H-2B visa, Formica estimated that around two-thirds of the workers he represents are undocumented. Becerra stands out from other cases of migrant workers injured on the job because he has gone public with his case and is pursuing legal compensation, Formica said. 

Professor Sheila Hayre, who teaches immigration law and serves as the faculty advisor for the Human Trafficking Prevention Project at Quinnipiac University School of Law, said that the protections for undocumented workers compared to those with temporary working status are like “night and day.” 

However, she emphasized that workers with legal working permission still face hurdles in reporting workplace injuries, and oftentimes, return back to their own countries to receive care before receiving compensation. 

“You can imagine yourself [suffering a workplace injury on a temporary working visa], and just feeling like I just want to go home,” Hayre said. “Situations like that, where you feel like the employer has provided housing and a job and everything else, the logistics of ‘how do I even survive while I’m fighting this case?’ I think it is a really huge issue.”

Hayre noted that difficulty in switching employers, who sponsor the visa, can prevent migrant workers from leaving exploitative or problematic employers. She also said that employers can “blacklist” workers from future work visas in the U.S., enabling employers to hang this potential ban over workers’ heads. As a result, many workers “put up” with unfair working conditions because they feel like they lack other options, according to Hayre. 

A lack of awareness among migrant workers of their labor rights additionally reduces reporting and obscures the extent of migrants working in unsafe conditions on a national scale, according to Hayre.

“What I’m proud of Edgar about as a client, is that he’s standing up and saying, ‘hey, I’m every bit as human as the next guy. I’m injured, and I’m taking advantage of it,’” Formica said. “I think in a general sense, Edgar is just trying to stand up and assert his own humanity. By example, he’s trying to assert the humanity of all foreign workers.” 

Becerra’s workers compensation case hearing is scheduled for next Thursday, Feb. 15. 

Maggie Grether covers housing and homelessness for city desk. Originally from Pasadena, California, she is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles college.
Laura Ospina covers Yale-New Haven relations and the Latine community for the City desk. Originally from North Carolina's Research Triangle, she is a sophomore in Branford College majoring in Political Science.