WASHINGTON, D.C. — Gustavo Ramirez was a typical 16-year-old. He was goofy and loving, and a jokester in class at his high school in Franklin, Kentucky. He was the youngest of six kids, with a Puerto Rican mom and a Costa Rican dad.
But last week, Ramirez fell and died at a construction site in Nashville where he was working with his older brother.
Over the past week, Ramirez was mourned by classmates at a vigil in his hometown, an hour north of Nashville, and by activists and community members at a separate vigil at the site of his death in Nashville.
“Gustavo loved to play the piano, had a lot of friends. He absolutely loved soccer,” said Cecilia Prado, co-director at Workers’ Dignity, a worker’s rights organization in Nashville that organized the vigil.
According to Prado, one of the last things Ramirez did before he died was tell his brother that he loved him.
Prado said she has been speaking with his family, who is still in shock and mourning. “The family is still trying to learn the full scope of what happened and so is everybody else,” Prado said. “Right now the family’s priority is to have a chance to grieve.”
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What is known at this point is that Ramirez was working on a La Quinta Inn site, and was assigned to collect trash from the different floors of the building, according to Prado.
He was on scaffolding 120 feet above the ground when he fell. Ramirez wasn’t wearing a harness at the time, which advocates say is a sign of the cost-saving measures that contractors take that lead to exploitation, abuse and sometimes death.
Tennessee’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA) began an investigation into Ramirez’s death.
The developer of the site where Ramirez died, DF Chase, said they didn’t know Ramirez had been hired. He was hired by a subcontractor, Cortez Plastering, who was hired by another subcontractor on the site.
Advocates say these layers of subcontractors, and the lack of a union presence in Nashville’s construction industry, lead to a lack of accountability for worker safety.
Construction worker deaths continue to be prevalent across the U.S. Last year the tragic death of an Ecuadoran construction worker from New York City caught people’s attention.
Those in the construction industry accounted for one in five worker deaths in private industries in 2018. Falls account for more than half of construction worker deaths.
But data indicates that the situation may be worse for these workers in states like Nashville. Eight states in the southeastern U.S., including Tennessee, accounted for over 30 percent of all construction worker deaths in the country in a University of Tennessee study that looked at the first three months of last year.
“The demographic of who builds Nashville, well, it’s primarily Latinx and indigenous immigrants,” said Prado, whose organization is working to unionize construction workers even though Tennessee is a right-to-work state.
Prado fears for people in the industry. She said just in the few months since the coronavirus pandemic began, she’s heard disturbing stories from construction workers who were put in unsafe conditions.
Most of those who have shared their stories with her have not felt comfortable enough to share them publicly. “It’s been hard sitting by the phone and listening to those stories. Workers are very afraid in the industry,” Prado said.
Few public officials in Nashville have spoken up about Ramirez’s death. Councilwoman Sandra Sepulveda attended the vigil for Ramirez last week, and has accused the city of putting corporations ahead of workers.
Having family in construction I will say this. The work is hard and sadly safety is not guaranteed. We have put companies and corporations before workers. Workers deserve safty. They deserve healthcare. They deserve to go home to their family at the end of the day!
— Councilwoman Sandra Sepulveda (@SandraForNash) June 24, 2020
A GoFundMe page set up to help the family with funeral expenses has raised over $10,000.
Ana Lucía Murillo is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. and the 2020 summer correspondent for Latino Rebels. She tweets from @analuciamur.