Post-Katrina Cleanup Yields Benefits for Workers
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Hurricane Katrina knocked hundreds of thousands of people out of work. Now the recovery effort is beginning to create jobs. And because there still aren't enough job seekers in some places, pay for low-wage workers is going up. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT reporting:
Lakim Gild(ph) used to work as a cook at the Chateau Country Club just outside of New Orleans. These days, he sets up temporary housing for people like himself, left homeless by the storm. Gild says the pay was a pleasant surprise.
Mr. LAKIM GILD: They started me off with 13.25 an hour, and that's wonderful compared to what I was making. I was making 9.35.
LANGFITT: Gild got his new job through a recruiter who visited the shelter in Baton Rouge where he's living with his four children, his fiancee and her family. Gild now works for Flour, one of the first big companies to do government-contracted recovery work. Earlier this week, Flour showed him how to set up trailers.
Mr. GILD: It's so simple that anyone can do it. They're just teaching us how to set and lock trailers down and, you know, teaching us how to use certain tools, different tools like the Jackson, the leveler, you know, different kinds of saws that we'll be using cutting the wood. It's basically just common sense.
LANGFITT: President Bush has suspended a law called Davis-Bacon, which requires firms to pay prevailing wages on government contracts and often favors union labor. But instead of paying laborers less, Flour's paying them more, as much as $16.40 an hour. That's because of competition from other contractors, says a Flour recruiter. Pay for low-wage workers can rise in the short term after a disaster because of high demand, according to economists.
That's what seems to be happening in Gulfport, Mississippi. A representative for Labor Ready, a temporary service firm, reports trying to fill several hundred jobs, but only finding a couple dozen takers. Stacey Burke is a spokeswoman for Labor Ready. She says this is not new.
Ms. STACEY BURKE (Spokeswoman, Labor Ready): Last year, in the wake of the hurricanes in Florida, we saw a similar situation, for the short term, an enormous demand for workers to clean up after the devastation.
LANGFITT: But an opportunity for workers can be a loss for small business owners like Richard Chenoweth. Chenoweth runs Scranton's, a restaurant in Pascagoula, Mississippi. After Katrina flooded his place, he brought back some of his workers to clean it up.
Mr. RICHARD CHENOWETH (Scranton's): I was paying them anywhere from 10 to $12 an hour, trying to keep them employed and keep them, you know, with some hope that, `Hey, what you're doing is you're cleaning up the restaurant to get this place open, you know, so that you will have a job, and you will have something to do.'
LANGFITT: But Chenoweth says he has lost a third of his work force. Several employees took jobs with companies cleaning up storm damage.
Mr. CHENOWETH: They're making, you know, anywhere from 15 to $20 an hour working for different subcontractors that are--you know, they're--some are working for companies that are cleaning up plants, you know, corporations that have been flooded, doing labor, doing picking up, cleaning up, raking up, you know, anything like that, very--you know, just your entry level job. And they're making more than they can make here.
LANGFITT: Most of the initial recovery jobs won't last. Flour plans to employ people like Lakim Gild, the former cook, for three to nine months. But a new job can get a person thinking. Gild says he was looking to get out of New Orleans anyway. The work with Flour is one more reason to stay around Baton Rouge.
Mr. GILD: You know, I wouldn't mind just leaving and not looking back, especially with the opportunity with this job. I really, really don't want to go back.
LANGFITT: For now, the job provides needed income and stability, as Gild looks to move on from the shelter. He's trying to find an apartment, but if that doesn't work, there's another option. His fiancee has already been approved for a trailer. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.