Ricardo Lara is in charge of the nation’s largest state consumer protection agency. He is California’s eighth Insurance Commissioner since voters created the elected position in 1988.
Born and raised in East Los Angeles by immigrant parents — an undocumented factory worker and a seamstress — Lara made history in 2018 as the first openly gay person elected to statewide office in California’s history.
He understands adversity firsthand — and the irony isn’t lost on him that since the COVID-19 outbreak, those who toil deep in the background, working in “bottom rung” jobs that have been considered “unskilled labor” and “menial,” are now classified as necessary “essential workers.”
“Our immigrant communities once again bear the brunt of this pandemic and of this extraordinary situation,” Lara said.
“When you look at who is doing the farm labor, who is delivering our groceries, who is working in those warehouses and packing all those goods that we’re now buying online, it’s primarily immigrants who are doing these jobs and are now considered essential workers.”
These jobs have always posed risks and have never been easy. But now, by merely reporting to work each day, the risk can be a roll of the dice as workers on the front lines place their personal health and lives on the line.
As they go back and forth to work and home during this COVID-19 pandemic, their loved ones can also be exposed to the virus. It’s difficult to practice social distancing in many of these jobs. Farm workers, and those working on the lines in factories and meat packing plants, are expected to work in close proximity to each other.
Lara said he is working to ensure immigrants’ access to medical, worker’s compensation benefits, and to cut the cost of co-pays and cost-sharing for COVID-19 examinations. He said he is focusing on reaching the undocumented community and is working closely with the Department of Insurance and the Department of Industrial Relations.
“Now more than ever we know that we want them to access healthcare if they feel sick, we want them to continue to work and contribute as essential workers without fear of losing their license or losing their discount, and if they have healthcare, that we give them that 60-day grace period if they are no longer able to pay their premiums and still keep their healthcare for themselves and their families,” the commissioner said.
One in ten people or 1.75 million people in the state of California are undocumented and Lara encouraged immigrant workers to apply for workers compensation if they become infected with COVID-19 on the job. He noted the reluctance by immigrants to apply for any public benefits although they are entitled to them.
Lara also pointed out that workers, including the immigrant community, have a right to have protective equipment to protect their health and they should call his office if protective gear isn’t provided to them.
“As we continue to figure out how we survive as a community, we have to make sure our immigrants are protected,” Lara said.
Lara Orders Insurance Companies to Issue Refunds
Earlier this month Lara ordered insurance companies to refund premiums to drivers and businesses impacted by the COVID-19 emergency. The refund, he said, should reflect a 50-70 percent premium for the months of March, April and May if “shelter-in-place” directives are still in place.
Insurance premiums eligible for reduction include car, commercial liability, medical malpractice, workers compensation and others.
However, so far, it appears that most insurance companies have responded with a much smaller refund of only 15-20 percent, and Lara said they should increase them.
He’s also encouraging consumers to contact their automobile insurance carriers to request consideration to delay premium payments, and for insurance companies to give their customers a 60-day grace period for payment or longer if people are still directed to stay-at-home.
“With Californians driving fewer miles and many businesses closed due to the COVID-19 emergency, consumers need relief from premiums that no longer reflect their present-day risk of accident or loss,” Lara said.
“[This] mandatory action will put money back in people’s pockets when they need it most.”
To reach the California Department of Insurance Consumer Hotline, call (800) 927-4357. For more information from the Department of Workers Compensation, call (800) 736 7401.
For the Department of Industrial Relations and the division of Workers Compensation, visit online: https://www.dir.ca.gov/dwc/tollfree.html