As Texas prepares to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey devastated much of the state, and Florida starts picking up the pieces from the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Irma, emergency workers may face exploitation for the sake of greater profits and speedier project completion.
Past abuses after similar natural disasters have left laborers without all of their wages and with serious illnesses that could have been prevented with proper supervision and training, labor experts say. A large portion of these workers are undocumented and likely afraid to alert authorities when their rights are violated. On top of that, the Trump administration’s approach to labor protections doesn’t inspire confidence, according to workers’ safety experts who spoke to ThinkProgress.
Forty percent of Houston construction workers do not have health insurance, retirement, life insurance, sick leave, and paid time off, according to a 2017 report from the Austin-based Workers Defense Project, an organization that advocates for better health, safety, and labor standards. The report was the result of interviews with over 1,400 construction workers. On average, a construction worker dies once every three days in Texas because of unsafe working conditions.
Texas is also the only state in the country that doesn’t require any form of workers compensation coverage, said Bo Delp, Director of the Better Builder Program at Workers Defense Project.
“After disasters like Katrina, there is a lot of construction going on — rebuilding, repairs, and remodels, and a lot of exploitation as well. Texas is a uniquely bad state for construction workers in terms of conditions,” Delp said. “That is compounded with a disaster like Harvey, when we know, in other contexts, that this has led to exploitation on an unprecedented scale.”
“After disasters like Katrina, there is a lot of construction going on — rebuilding, repairs, and remodels, and a lot of exploitation as well.”
Studies after Hurricane Katrina found that wage theft and unhealthy working conditions were rampant and that undocumented workers were particularly vulnerable. A 2006 study from the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice found that 61 percent of surveyed workers had experienced workplace abuses such as wage theft and health and safety violations. A similar 2009 study by the University of California, Berkeley found that there were concerning differences in conditions for undocumented versus documented workers. Thirty-seven percent of undocumented workers said they were told they might be exposed to mold and asbestos, while 67 percent of documented workers reported they had been informed. Only 20 percent of undocumented workers said they were paid time and a half when they worked overtime.
Delp said that there are “good honest contractors” in the state, but he is concerned about “fly-by-night” contractors who will eschew safety measures to get things done cheaply and quickly.
Sasha Legette of the Houston Business Liaison works alongside community partners and policymakers, including the mayor’s office, to ensure better wage and safety conditions for workers. So far, she said that she has been impressed with Mayor Sylvester Turner’s response to the disaster. But she hopes the state doesn’t rush it in a way that could harm workers.
“We know that the water and flooding has created a very toxic environment and what we don’t want to see happen is that workers or that the city is so eager to rebuild that the safety of those who are going to do that work is not taken under consideration,” Legette said.
In addition to these labor conditions, Texas and Florida don’t have their own occupational safety and health regulatory programs. They are two of a handful of states in the United States that don’t have workplace safety laws for public sector employees, said Jordan Barab, former Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during the Obama administration.
“Public employees are not covered in OSHA, except for states that are state-plan states. So, as far as you have states with [public] employees working as emergency responders, they don’t have OSHA protections,” Barab said.
Beyond labor conditions on the ground, there are questions around how well OSHA will conduct compliance assistance and enforcement after the hurricane. Under the Trump administration, OSHA plans to leave behind some efforts to regulate worker safety, such as exposure to combustible dust, dangers from vehicles that back up on construction sites, and construction noise, according to Bloomberg BNA. This was part of a regulatory agenda released in July, which did not list any new rulemakings and moved other rulemakings to a “long-term actions” list. Those included rules governing emergency response and preparedness and infectious diseases in health care.
The president’s proposed 2018 budget would have killed OSHA’s Chemical Safety Board, which looks into chemical plant accidents to determine if there are OSHA violations, as well as the Susan Harwood grant program, which benefits nonprofits and unions that provide worker safety training. The program focuses on training people who may be vulnerable to worker exploitation, such as those who don’t speak English fluently or work in industries where fatalities are high.
Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said the program has been a “critical resource” for organizations and training groups to be able to partner with employers and educate workers.
“They can identify hazards and prevent the need for OSHA to have to enforce after the fact,” Goldstein-Gelb said.
Sharon Block, executive director of Harvard University’s Labor and Worklife Program and former principal deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Labor, said she is concerned about the administration’s potential response to the recent disasters.
Often, OSHA will begin with “compliance assistance mode,” which means they will help employers comply with rules, and then will eventually move to enforcement mode. But the Bush administration never moved into enforcement mode after Katrina, and she worries that the Trump administration could do the same.
Block is also worried about whether there are enough resources at the agency. In addition to the proposed cuts and business-friendly approach of the administration, there is no OSHA chief.
“They don’t have real leadership in the agency,” Block said. “So having watched Sandy and the Gulf oil spill, these sort of unexpected disaster responses, even for an agency like OSHA, it’s really complicated and it’s really resource intensive.”
“Based on their level of staffing and resources and everything else about their approach on worker protection issues, I’d be worried about how workers post-Harvey and post-Irma are going to be effective.”
“There is a lot at risk,” Block added. “Based on their level of staffing and resources and everything else about their approach on worker protection issues, I’d be worried about how workers post-Harvey and post-Irma are going to be effective.”
There are some potential downsides to not having an OSHA chief at a time like this, such as getting assistance from FEMA to do work on the ground to address workers’ health and safety needs, said Barab.
“A lot of the activity around these national disasters involves agencies working together,” Barab said. “It requires agencies having frank and candid conversations, [such as] getting FEMA to be more accommodating to the health needs of workers. It always helps to have a higher level person doing that.”
In order to get OSHA staff to hurricane-affected areas in Texas or Florida, OSHA would have to transfer some compliance and enforcement staff there temporarily. But this is expensive and the agency has been chronically underfunded. To reimburse the expenses of doing this, FEMA can provide supplemental assistance, Barab explained, but the state must request this and, on top of that, the state has to contribute 25 percent of the funding.
“To pony up about 25 percent of cost — we haven’t seen a lot of states willing do that. I am not optimistic about Texas and I don’t see them wanting to spend money to get more OSHA enforcement there,” Barab said. “FEMA has the ability to waive that requirement, but they generally don’t, and didn’t, in fact, after [Hurricane] Sandy.”
One of the other challenges facing OSHA will be outreach to undocumented workers who may be concerned about reporting safety and wage violations. Barab said the government needs to send a message that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency will not be involved if workers want to report violations. But because many workers will feel uncomfortable going to a government official in any situation, OSHA needs to maintain relationships with local nonprofits.
“We already had pre-existing relationships with nonprofits that were continuing to train immigrants and day workers during [Hurricane] Sandy,” Barab said. “In terms of being able to reach out to OSHA, the nonprofits had a relationship with these workers and other groups had relationship with OSHA.”
Marianela Acuña Arreaza, executive director of Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Houston, an organization that helps low-wage workers learn about their rights and organizes workers, said the group has been through post-disaster health and safety trainings and has a healthy relationship with the local OSHA office. The center is educating workers on what kind of respirators to use if they’re working in a structure that has mold, for example, while also keeping an eye on any worker safety and wage violations. The center has also benefited as subgrantee from the Susan Harwood program for the last five years.
“Undocumented workers specifically fear retaliation in terms of losing a job or an employer calling ICE on them, and that happens a lot. It is definitely a barrier for people to come forward,” Acuña Arreaza said. “Even other immigrants who have other statuses — some of the fears are similar because they are still worried about losing their job or having their employer retaliate.”
“We try to repeat that and and say, ‘No, you have rights.’ And people start getting it after we repeat it enough.”
By having a staff of mostly immigrants, she said the organization has created an environment where undocumented workers would feel comfortable, never asking workers about immigration status, and working with other nonprofits and local churches to encourage people to come in.
“We try to repeat that and and say, ‘No, you have rights.’ And people start getting it after we repeat it enough,” Acuña Arreaza said. “But there is a huge disconnect that comes from documentation but also comes from not being able to speak English or fully speak English, other cultural barriers, and racism. Lacking papers does not help, but there is this layered separation from justice in the system of worker rights.”