LIANE HANSEN, Host:
Since Hurricane Katrina swept ashore along the Coast of the Gulf of Mexico last August, business owners in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have struggled to rebuild and to reopen. A shortage of building materials has stalled reconstruction for many companies. For others, a shortage of workers has stymied efforts to revive production and distribution of their goods and products. With hundreds of thousands of residents instantly scattered across the country, workers from Mexico were hired to fill the labor gap on the Gulf Coast.
The influx of Mexicans, some in the United States illegally, and many others with temporary work visas, raised concerns among some people that the region would experience instant and possibly permanent demographic shifts.
In October, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin voiced those worries at a meeting with local business owners.
RAY NAGIN: How do I make sure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?
HANSEN: Nagin's rhetorical question was answered by the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce with charges that he was inviting divisiveness and ignoring the economic and cultural contribution made by the country's fastest growing ethnic group. In an interview on NPR's All Things Considered in November, Nagin said his comments had been misunderstood.
NAGIN: Well, I think people need to take it in the context of what we were dealing with. That forum was basically a forum to discuss how business people from New Orleans could, you know, prosper and take advantage of these opportunities. And I wanted to make sure that the mix of contractors and subcontractors started to change so local folks could get in the mix. And as locals get a shot, we're going to have to be more comfortable with working next to someone who doesn't necessarily look like us, whether they be white, whether they be black, whether they be Latino.
HANSEN: Statistical surveys have not been completed on the ethnicity of people fleeing or entering Gulf Coast states. But the complexion of the workforce in hurricane-damaged areas has changed. At least by anecdotal accounts. We saw evidence of that in Houma, Louisiana, in December, when we visited Motivatit Seafoods, one of the state's largest harvesters and processors of oysters. At that time, we met a group of Mexican women working on the processing line.
We returned to Houma earlier this month. Emily Vouisan(ph), a member of the family that owns and runs Motivatit Seafoods, maintains a group home for the Mexican women working at the plant.
EMILY VOUISAN: We're here at what I call the Casa, this is Motivatit Seafood's housing area for our Mexican laborers that are here just for a few months.
(SOUNDBITE OF WORKERS)
HANSEN: A dining table fills the center of the kitchen. Pots and pans, plates and silverware from breakfast dry in the dish rack by the sink. One by one, the room fills with women. Some standing back. Others extending a warm welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPANISH SPEAKING WORKERS)
HANSEN: Emily explains a notice on the wall, in English and Spanish. Letting the women know that NPR would be visiting.
VOUISAN: Several of them are still kind of concerned about their legality. And we've explained it to them several times, that they are completely here legally, that they have work visas, that they have no problems. They have, they can call upon the law, if they have any problems they can call 911 and feel safe, you know, that the police are here to protect them. And so I wrote a lengthy note about you guys coming and let them know that you guys are here to get to know them a little bit and be able to tell their story. And I think they're going to be happy to do that.
HANSEN: A hallway off the kitchen leads to small pin-neat bedrooms, most with two twin beds, decorated with multi-colored throw pillows. End tables hold photos of children, husbands, mothers, fathers back home. In the living room, artificial flowers decorate a coffee table, a large television stands against one wall. A dozen women crowd together on sofas and chairs lining the room and introduce themselves.
Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking Spanish)
Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking Spanish)
Unidentified Woman #3: (Speaking Spanish)
Unidentified Woman #4: (Speaking Spanish)
Unidentified Woman #5: (Speaking Spanish)
Unidentified Woman #6: (Speaking Spanish)
Unidentified Woman #7: (Speaking Spanish)
Unidentified Woman #8: (Speaking Spanish)
HANSEN: So are you all friends in Vera Cruz? You're all part of the same neighborhood?
Unidentified Woman #9: Everyday, watch, everyday they see one another.
Unidentified Woman #10: (Speaking Spanish)
HANSEN: Cerca. Close knit. Back home and now. Together in a foreign place.
HANSEN: How long have you been here, Jasmine?
JASMINE: Oh, two months.
HANSEN: Two months. And the job that you do?
JASMINE: Shucking, (speaking Spanish). Packing the bags. Everybody.
HANSEN: Do the same job everybody does?
HANSEN: How do you like your job?
Charlene Hernandez, a longtime worker at the plant, helped translate.
CHARLENE HERNANDEZ: A night times she don't like it too much 'cause it's too cold.
HANSEN: What kind of work was available to you at home in Vera Cruz?
HERNANDEZ: There was work in the fields. Planting.
HERNANDEZ: Yeah, that's what they...
HANSEN: That's it.
HERNANDEZ: The fields, just planting, you know.
HANSEN: And this was a better opportunity?
HERNANDEZ: She says the reason why it's better here because the products over there that they sell, they get very little money for. You know, over here is more money. If she has an opportunity to come back, she's going to come back because her family is living a little better you know, now she's working here.
HANSEN: A few minutes before noon, the women pull on their work clothes. Boots, vests, sweaters. They gather bags of food and leave together to walk the few hundred yards from the house to the plant to clock in for their shift, which pays between $5.50 and $6.00 an hour and can stretch on for as long as 12 hours.
The women are not the first laborers from Mexico to work at Motivatit Seafoods. Several years go, the company faced a shortage of local workers willing to do the grueling jobs on the boats that dredge the oyster beds. As many as 60 men at a time came from Mexico to take those jobs, getting H2B visas that allowed them to live and work in the United States for as long as nine and a half months. Steve Vouisan runs the company's boat operation and he's also been responsible for bringing the women to Houma.
STEVE VOUISAN: Right when Katrina hit, you know, we recognized there might be some issues labor-wise and so we applied for some processors and we ended up bringing in, I think, 15, 15 ladies. It was all ladies this first round.
HANSEN: What kind of effort did you make to recruit locally?
VOUISAN: Well, we continue to recruit locally through newspaper ads, through word of mouth, and we do hire the local people. But they, I don't know, it just doesn't, it seems hard to hang on to the people here. They find other work that maybe pays more. Different reasons they don't hang around.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOBILE PHONE)
HANSEN: Wayne Deart(ph) is the plant manager at Motivatit. He juggles truck deliveries, rotating job shifts, a fluctuating workforce and a steady flow of hundred pound sacks of oysters. For him, the women from Mexico are filling jobs that he desperately needs done to keep providing product to customers from Boston to Los Angeles. And he likes the ethic his new employees bring to their work.
WAYNE DEART: You don't have to worry about people not showing up for work. They're always willing and ready to go to work at any time and it doesn't matter how long a day they have to put in. To where most people are looking to get out of here after their first 10 minutes that they're here, actually. Most of these people, I mean most of their family's back in Mexico, so they don't have anything to drag them away from the job. They want to be here all the time.
HANSEN: So you met these women just a few months ago?
HANSEN: And what was your impression when you first met them?
DEART: Well, I thought it was a good thing, 'cause we really had a hard time getting people after the hurricanes and stuff like that. People kind of scattered everywhere and even some of the people that worked here we probably didn't see for like two weeks after Katrina anyhow. And after they all came by, I mean everything just kind of fell into place. I mean we're still having a problem getting guys to work, but most of the women do whatever guys do anyhow. So...
HANSEN: How many jobs would you say you still have open here?
DEART: Right now, available, we probably have at least I'd say 30, and then we're supposed to get two new machines, which will probably open up for another 20 or 30 more people.
HANSEN: So where are you going to get the personnel?
DEART: We don't know yet. I mean, we're still having a hard time trying to find the 30 that we need right now, so that's going to be rough.
RANDALL DOMINGUE: Seventy-eight percent of our placements were in food service.
HANSEN: Randall Domingue, of the Louisiana Department of Labor, gives a snapshot of the local job market. Domingue is Workforce Development Sub-Regional Manager in Houma, and he says there's a steady supply of physically demanding work available in manufacturing and on boats that ferry oil hands out to platforms in the Gulf. But Domain says many local residents just aren't interested in those jobs, even though they pay as much as $12.00 or more an hour, twice the pay in restaurants and stores around town.
DOMINGUE: Most of the people that we see, the people that come in here, do not have the training to work in manufacturing, and do not want to pursue it because of what they perceive the job to be. So most people we see are interested in retail type jobs, more than anything else.
We did a job fair back in October and we had a variety of, we had just about the entire labor market covered as far as types of industries, types of businesses, and most people wind up at the big box retailers.
Woman #1: Hi, welcome to Wal-Mart.
HANSEN: Visiting the big box stores has become a weekly staple in the lives of the Mexican women working at Motivatit Seafood.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAL-MART)
HANSEN: They shop for basics, for warm clothes for work.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAL-MART)
HANSEN: To chicken and rice and beans, milk and jalapeÃ±o peppers, always keeping a close watch on how they spend their hard-earned wages, scrimping to save money to send home.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAL-MART)
HANSEN: La vida sigue, life goes on. Life for now, until July, when they have to leave the United States for a few weeks to renew their visas, goes on with long shifts at Motivatit Seafoods, where work is steady and the company is thriving and expanding.
KEVIN WATSON: You'll see this is a whole new enclosure. We've got the guys up there finishing it up right now. But we're building...
HANSEN: Kevin Watson, Emily's husband the grandson of the company's founder, takes us through a new addition to the plant where even more workers will be needed to keep the oysters moving.
Kevin originally resisted bringing in workers from Mexico, preferring to remain loyal to the local population. But he's changed his mind.
WATSON: My change of mind came when I met them, and I sat in that house, you know, the Casa over there. My wife is involved in taking care of it.
WATSON: So I've sat there a lot. I've sat there a lot and just hung out with them. And I realized, man, these are great people. This is what America's all about. I mean that's what we, my ancestors were Irish, and everyone said the Irish were going to take all the jobs, but they didn't, you know. They took some of them, but not all of them. And this isn't the Irish Republic of America, it's the United States and it's great. And I just saw that, I guess. I guess I saw some of that in the people when I sat down and had dinner with them. It changed my opinion, that this is what we're about. This is what we need to be doing.
HANSEN: And the Voisins at Motivatit Seafoods say they will gladly continue to employ workers from Mexico as long as the local labor supply remains thin and reluctant and the men and women from Mexico remain eager and willing.
The story of our visit with the Mexican workers at Motivatit Seafoods was written by Stu Seidel and produced by Ned Wharton, with help from Phillip Martin and Elaine Heinzman and research assistance from Claudine Ebeid and Kee Malesky. Our sound engineer was Johnny Vince Evans.
To hear the first two stories in our series from Houma, Louisiana, please go to our website, npr.org.
You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News.