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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Among of the groups that have helped rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, one that is rarely mentioned is day laborers. After the storm, tens of thousands of prospective workers came in search of jobs. Today, casual laborers hired by the day by homeowners or small contractors are an important workforce in the city that still has years of rebuilding.

As part of our series on New Orleans, four years after Katrina, NPR's Greg Allen reports on efforts there to protect the rights of workers who are usually ignored and often victimized.

GREG ALLEN: I'm in the parking lot of the Lowe's home improvement store on Elysian Fields Avenue in New Orleans. Twenty or 30 men, black and Latino, are out here most mornings starting at sunrise. Trucks and vans pull in and stop just long enough to pick up workers. If you're looking for willing hands and strong backs, this is the place to come.

Mr. JOHN PACE: We do sheet rock. We might go and move the sand. It's general labor.

ALLEN: John Pace is standing with a group of friends all hoping for the same thing - a day's work paying maybe $100. Competition to get the jobs is intense, and when you do get one, Pace's friend Sammy Davis says, there's no guarantee you'll be paid. It's happened to him and just about every day laborer he knows.

Mr. SAMMY DAVIS: You just lost out on a whole eight hours or two days or a whole week worth of work, when you ain't got no money to show for it. Then your kids' looking at you, your wife looking at you and then you ain't got nothing to show for it. Oh, baby, I'm going to come back, get my money later on, you say this evening, about three or four o'clock to pick up my money. But then he don't show up at all.

Mr. ARNIE FIELKOW (City Council President, New Orleans): It has become a very large problem in city of New Orleans.

ALLEN: New Orleans City Council President Arnie Fielkow recently held a hearing on day laborers and the pervasive problem of wage theft. In New Orleans, as elsewhere, the issue is unavoidably tied with immigration status. After Katrina, the Hispanic population in New Orleans increased dramatically. Most of those looking for work on street corners are from Honduras, Mexico or other Latin American countries. Many are here illegally. But City Councilman Fielkow says a worker's immigration status has nothing to do with wage theft.

Mr. FIELKOW: We do not and I do not condone in any way the hiring of undocumented workers. But, at the same time, if workers are hired, they should be paid for the work that they performed.

ALLEN: Fielkow plans to introduce legislation soon that would make wage theft a crime — allowing day laborers to call the police and file a claim when they feel they've not been paid as promised. In New Orleans, one of the driving forces behind the law is the Congress of Day Laborers. Dennis Soriano is a former day laborer, originally from Honduras and one of the group's organizers.

Mr. DENNIS SORIANO (Congress of Day Laborers): (Through Translator) When somebody goes to work on the corners, and the boss comes, you don't know anything that's going to happen. You don't know if that person - if they pick you up and take you to work, if they're going to call the police at the end of the day, if they're going to call immigration at the end of the day or take out a gun and point it at you and tell you to get lost.

ALLEN: It's an issue that's not unique to New Orleans. Anywhere there are day laborers, there will also be employers who hire them and then later refuse to pay all or some of what was promised. But in New Orleans, wage theft has become nearly epidemic.

(Soundbite of construction)

ALLEN: Four years after Katrina, nearly everywhere you go in this city, there's construction going on.

(Soundbite of construction)

ALLEN: On Prentiss Avenue in New Orleans' Lakeview section, a cement mixer is running, and a dozen workers are repairing the brickwork on a house flooded in Hurricane Katrina. The citywide construction boom has helped give New Orleans one of the nation's lowest unemployment rates — and at the same time, the highest incidence of wage theft in the country.

In a recent study, the Southern Poverty Law Center found some 80 percent of those surveyed said they had not been paid for their work. One of them is Ezequiel Falcon, a 28-year-old day laborer from Mexico. He says he worked several days last year for a boss who, in the end, simply refused to pay him.

Mr. EZEQUIEL FALCON: (Through Translator) We were remodeling a big building, and we worked on a daily basis. But he kept saying, oh yes, I'm going to pay you soon, I'm going to pay you soon, but then he never did.

ALLEN: Falcon says he was out at least $1300, and it was at a time when he really needed the money.

Mr. FALCON: (Through Translator) I was living in an apartment with my three daughters, and because I wasn't able to make rent, we had to go and live and -I had to sleep in the living room of a sister that happens to live here. If she hadn't been here, I don't know what would've happened. Maybe we would have to sleep in the street.

ALLEN: Under current law, workers who believe they've been cheated of their wages have no recourse except to go to court. And plenty do so. The law clinic at Loyola University, New Orleans holds a wage-claim session that lately has been seeing 20 people or more each week. But even filing claims can be difficult. Luz Molina, who helps direct the clinic, says a big problem is that workers often don't have an address, a phone number or even the name of the person for whom they were working.

Professor LUZ MOLINA (Loyola University New Orleans): It is so difficult sometimes with some employers, even identifying this individual. If the worker is in a situation where he has the employer out there, the police come and they issue a citation, then you've got an identification right off the bat because the police are going to require that identification in order to write the citation.

ALLEN: So far in New Orleans there's been little overt opposition to the proposed law. The AFL-CIO supports it. Contractors and builders groups have mostly stayed out of the discussion, saying it has nothing to do with them because they don't hire day laborers. Wes Wyman, head of the Greater New Orleans Home Builders Association, says he wonders, though, why a law is needed.

Mr. WES WYMAN (Greater New Orleans Home Builders Association): You're looking to protect people that are basically operating outside of the laws anyway. They are not legitimate contractors. They work for cash. They don't pay taxes. They don't have insurance. They're definitely not the kind of people that we would hire on our jobs.

ALLEN: Even so, some large builders and developers had been sued for wage theft in New Orleans. Last month, a New Jersey real estate company agreed to pay $175,000 to settle a wage claim brought by 39 workers. Other cities: Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago are also considering laws that would criminalize wage theft. One reason is fairness for day laborers. Vanessa Spinazola of the Loyola Law Clinic says another reason is it's good for the community.

Ms. VANESSA SPINAZOLA (Loyola Law Clinic): These same employers - the employers who are not paying for worker's compensation for their workers, they drop their workers off at the emergency room, and the taxpayers have to pay all that. The same employers who don't pay the taxes for these workers to the federal government. And they're also competing with other businesses that are doing the right thing. And they're causing those businesses money because they're underbidding them. So I think that this hurts everybody.

ALLEN: Left unanswered still are questions about the difficulty of enforcement — how police will sort out the conflicting claims of employers and workers in a labor dispute. Also, what notice immigration authorities may take of wage disputes involving undocumented workers. But day laborers, their advocates and city officials in New Orleans say the first step in stopping wage theft is to pass a law that says it's wrong.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

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