Lawsuits Filed by Post-Katrina Construction Workers
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. I'm sitting in for Ed Gordon.
Later in today's program, we'll discuss the situation in the Middle East where fighting escalated over the weekend between Israel and Hezbollah. Now the world community is working to find a diplomatic solution to the political and ideological conflict that threatens the entire region.
But before we get to that, we go to New Orleans and the rebuilding efforts there. As we approach the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a new report says that African-Americans and Latinos have been facing tremendous employment challenges in Louisiana.
In particular, the 80-page report by the Advancement Project of Washington D.C. documents the story of hundreds of workers exploited in the weeks and months after the storm. And several lawsuits have been filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of reconstruction workers.
I spoke with J.J. Rosenbaum. She's an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Project and also spoke with Judith Browne, co-author of the Advancement Project's new report, And Injustice for All. Judith explained what they learned from the more the 700 workers in New Orleans who were interviewed from January to April of this year?
Ms. JUDITH BROWNE (Senior Attorney, Advancement Project): Workers in New Orleans, both the workers who are survivors of Hurricane Katrina and the workers who have come there to rebuild the city, are experiencing high levels of exploitation in the work that they are doing; and the African-American survivors of Hurricane Katrina in particular are experiencing high levels of exclusion from work.
And that in fact for African-Americans survivors because they can't live in New Orleans, they can't work there, and because they can't work there, they cannot afford to live there. And that the migrant workers are really experiencing high levels of wage theft, they're working in hazardous conditions with no protection, and they're experiencing harassment by police and immigration officials.
CHIDEYA: I was really struck when I went down to New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina, and then I went back again six months later and I struck by how many Mexican immigrants there were in the city. Has this kind of pitting of two different employment groups caused racial tension in the city?
Ms. BROWNE: Yes. We found that there are some racial tensions and it's been fueled by the elected officials. Mayor Nagin had made statements about Mexicans taking over the city, and unfortunately pitting them against each other for underpaid jobs. In fact, what we are finding is that they are all in a race to the bottom. So, while there maybe racial tension, it's over jobs that are not getting them out of poverty, but in fact are sinking them further into poverty.
CHIDEYA: J.J., let me get you in here. You're with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and you've worked extensively with Katrina workers. Who are the workers? Do you have any sense of the demographics?
Ms. J.J. ROSENBAUM (Attorney, Southern Poverty Law Center): Well, the demographic is more complex perhaps than Mayor Nagin's comment reflects. The Latino demographic in New Orleans has increased rapidly with migrant workers coming in to work in reconstruction jobs. But most of those workers are migrant workers from other parts of the United States that came immediately after the hurricane and continued to come.
CHIDEYA: So let me ask you specifically about an individual case. I believe it's called Navarrete Cruz versus LVI Environmental Services. Does this case exemplify some of the issues going on, and can you tell us a little bit more about it?
Ms. ROSENBAUM: Sure. This case was filed on behalf of a group of almost 600 workers who where employed immediately after the hurricane in the reconstruction of St. Bernard Parish schools. They were removing the toxic mold and mud and floodwaters in October and November of 2005. And the treatment of these workers I think is a good example of what was happening to many workers at the time in New Orleans, and many of the problems workers are still having.
Many were paid late and oftentimes not paid at all for up to a month of work. And this was at a time when there were no resources in the city to rely on for workers not being paid. So the impact of wage theft was much more severe than it might be in any other circumstances. Workers were hungry. Workers were living in employer-provided housing and faced losing their housing if they complained about wage theft.
And workers were, in fact, threatened when they asked for their wages, when they asked for wages for work that had already been completed.
CHIDEYA: Judith, is it easier to exploit undocumented workers or is that a distinction at all that your research has found?
Ms. BROWNE: Well, we didn't find that distinction. I mean, all workers are victims of exploitation. And so documented, undocumented, it doesn't matter. The thing that may matter is whether or not the worker feels like they have the status and the ability to fight back.
And so you may see that with workers who are citizens that they kind of take on the system because they don't have as much of a fear of reprisals.
Ms. ROSENBAUM: I think, following up on that too, I mean the lack of resources going in to allow worker complaints is real critical. The failure of the U.S. Department of Labor to have a strategy to respond immediately is just outrageous.
And the worker protection infrastructure in New Orleans and Louisiana, like in many Southern states, was weak before the hurricane and was decimated like everything else. And so what we found is that all workers have very few avenues to exercise their rights, while employers have most of the power to set the terms of the game. And what we found was just basic lawlessness that came into being after the hurricane and continues, and workers feel it and employers exploit it.
CHIDEYA: I know, J.J., that your organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center, produced a report called Broken Levees, Broken Promises that really detailed a lot of the issues you were just talking about. Do you anticipate that things will change in the near future? I mean, obviously, there are lawsuits, there are reports, but does there seem to be an environment in which these challenges are going to dissipate?
Ms. ROSENBAUM: I think that's one of the strengths of the Advancement Project's report is that it calls for a structural change in the enforcement possibilities and the remedies for workers who are experiencing this wage theft. I mean, we can bring lawsuits and we can document the evidence of what's going on. And the report documents well what workers and their advocates have been saying all along. But the reality is until there is pressure from outside of New Orleans to end this crisis of worker exploitation then workers and the limited advocates that they have are bailing water out of a sinking boat.
CHIDEYA: Judith, explain to us the difference between the structural racism or institutional racism that you are documenting and, you know, just the idea that, oh well, it's one person here, one person there.
Ms. BROWNE: Our report talks mostly about structural racism. There is individual racism, which is just the one on one person who may discriminate against another. But what we found is that there's a combination of the actions and inactions of government institution and private industry, namely the contractors down there, that are creating barriers to access that are also creating inequities, patterns of inequities and disadvantage.
So when you have these policies, these governmental policies that are working in conjunction with contractors who have no level of accountability and who are really trying to make the most profit that they can and do that at the expense of the workers, what you find is that you have a structure and institutional racism that keeps people on this race to the bottom.
CHIDEYA: What exactly do you mean by the government having a role in this? Explain to us exactly.
Ms. BROWNE: Well, the government has a role because the government is supposed to be the institution that keeps the contractors accountable. Right now, workers are working in jobs where they don't even know the names of the employer for the day. The billions of dollars that are going into New Orleans and into the Gulf Coast region for rebuilding, no one is tracking those dollars, making sure that the contractors are actually abiding by the law, that they are providing safety - safe working conditions for the workers.
And so the government really has the ultimate role of keeping everybody honest and making sure that they abide by the law, but they're not doing it. They're asleep at the switch.
And what is really unconscionable about this is that when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast region, Americans sat by and watched on TV and we were upset, we were crying, we were outraged at the government inaction. And we also were upset by the levels of poverty that we saw on TV.
Yet today - almost a year later - the people who have gone there to rebuild that city and the people had to flee that city and who are survivors of Hurricane Katrina are finding themselves sinking deeper and deeper into poverty. Yet the billions of dollars that are going into that city are really escaping the people who want to rebuild and who want to rebuild their lives, let alone the city.
And so really the American public has the duty to keep the government on line, and the government has the duty to keep the contractors in line and make sure they are accountable for all the billions of dollars that are going in.
CHIDEYA: Well, we're going to have to end the conversation here, but there's a lot to talk about and we'd like to stay in touch with you in the future.
J.J. Rosenbaum is a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Project in Montgomery, Alabama. And Judith Browne is co-director of The Advancement Project, a democracy in action justice group based in Washington, D.C. Thank you both.
Ms. BROWNE: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: We asked for a statement from the Department of Labor. Unfortunately, it came after the taping of this segment. Their statement reads in full:
The Department of Labor has been aggressively on the lookout for potential exploitation of workers in the Gulf Coast area. Additional resources have been devoted to the department's enforcement of federal wage laws, including conducting targeted investigations of employers and responding to complaints about workers not being paid or being paid incorrectly.
Because so many of the workers in the Gulf Coast clean up and rebuilding are immigrants, additional bilingual wage and hour investigators have been detailed to the area.
Investigators conduct directed investigation of federally-funded contractors, visit meeting places of workers, including the Good News camps in New Orleans, to provide workers easily accessible information about filing wage complaints and to take complaints of nonpayment of wages.
The department has made a concerted effort to work with every employee and immigrant advocacy group willing to work with us to provide outreach and assistance to effected workers.
As a result of these efforts, the department has recovered and excess of $1 million of back wages for employees in hurricane-related cases since last November and has obtained further preliminary agreements by employers to pay an excess of two million more.
That was a statement by the U.S. Department of Labor.
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