Immigration

Bush Administration Exemption Allowed Contractors To Steal Wages From Katrina Reconstruction Workers

CREDIT: (Credit: AP/Morry Gash)

Chuck Beaver of Long Beach, Miss., works to tear down a sign along Highway 90 Friday, Sept. 30, 2005, in Biloxi, Miss.

Though thousands of Latino workers rebuilt New Orleans during the post-Hurricane Katrina recovery, many still have not been repaid for their efforts, NBC News reported.

Latino workers, some of whom are undocumented, went to New Orleans in the days and weeks following the disaster to help with reconstruction efforts and debris and mold removal. But even a decade later, many remain underpaid or unpaid. Over the past few years, the Workplace Justice Project, an organization that gives free legal assistance to help mostly Latino workers recoup their lost wages, has filed claims to try to recover more than $700,000 in stolen wages.

According to an Americas Society and Council of the Americas study, legal and undocumented Latino workers directly contributed to making 86.9 percent of the houses habitable in the six surrounding New Orleans parishes after Hurricane Katrina. And a 2006 University of Berkeley and Tulane University study found that the reconstruction workforce in New Orleans comprised of 45 percent of construction workers who were Latino, of whom at least 54 percent were undocumented.

Santos Alvarado, a legal Honduran immigrant granted temporary protected status, was one of the workers allegedly whose wages were allegedly stiffed. A contractor hired him to work 12-hour days to clean hospitals, schools, and government buildings. The contractor left to Texas without any intention to pay him or his three family members. The contractor “ended up owing us a total of $12,000 for the work that we did for about a month,” Alvarado told NBC News. Alvarado said that it was commonplace for contractors to withhold wages and to threaten workers with deportation.

Contractors were able to get away with worker rights violations in part because the Bush administration suspended Department of Labor workplace regulations throughout the Gulf, which allowed employers to stop reporting the identity and legal documents of employees to federal authorities. But that also allowed companies to self-enforce workplace protection programs rather than rely on government oversight, a problem that left Latino day laborers vulnerable to negotiate workplace safety or labor conditions.

Wage theft problems have persisted for a while in the Gulf region. A 2007 Interfaith Worker Justice report found of 218 workers who worked in New Orleans during reconstruction efforts, 47 percent reported that they did not receive all the pay they were entitled to and 55 percent said that they received no overtime pay for hours worked beyond 40 hours per week. And it’s likely that toxic chemical exposure are continuing to go untreated — 58 percent of survey respondents said that they were exposed to dangerous substances like mold, contaminated water, and asbestos.

“The truth of the matter is, if you took the Latino presence out, this city would not have recovered the way it did,” Luz Molina, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, told NBC News. Molina founded the Workplace Justice Project. “There’s absolutely no way that there would’ve been enough workers.”