Day Laborers Fight for Katrina Cleanup Money Some immigrant day laborers say they were cheated out of back pay while cleaning up storm debris from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and along the Mississippi coast. They are going to court to try to get the money they say they're owed. The subcontractors who rounded up the workers say their actions are legal.

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Day Laborers Fight for Katrina Cleanup Money

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A year after Hurricane Katrina, damaged home and businesses are just reopening after months of backbreaking repair work. Some immigrant day laborers say they were cheated out of back pay while cleaning up storm debris. Now they're fighting to get their money.

From member station WETA, Eric Niiler has the story.

ERIC NIILER reporting:

The half dozen men crowded in a small apartment all have similar versions of the same tough luck story.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

NIILER: A year ago, they were recruited from the parking lot at a 7-Eleven in suburban Maryland. The Hispanic subcontractor promised six months of steady work, cleaning up floating casinos in Biloxi and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

Mr. ALEJANDRO RODRIGUEZ (Day Laborer): (Speaking foreign language)

NIILER: Alejandro Rodriguez is a 55-year-old bricklayer from El Salvador. He says that he and the other workers were tricked. He says they were told there would be free clothes, food, and everything. But in the end, there was nothing. And he says they weren't even paid. Rodriguez say she is owed for more than 24 days of wages, plus overtime.

Francisco Luna of Chiapas, Mexico, thought he had won the lottery after being promised six months of work at $10 an hour. That's $1.50 more an hour than he was making washing dishes. But the cleanup job lasted only three weeks and the conditions were pretty bad.

Mr. FRANCISCO LUNA (Day Laborer): (Through translator) It was tough work because we were in unsanitary areas, in deep mud, and sometimes throwing out rotten food from freezers.

NIILER: Luna and Rodriguez are two of about 50 day laborers from the Washington, D.C. area who have filed suit in federal court against the subcontractor and a Pennsylvania construction firm. The workers are seeking $300,000 in back wages and damages.

Jessica Salsbury is an attorney for Casa de Maryland, and immigrant advocacy group that is handling the case. Salsbury says unpaid workers are still coming into her office.

Ms. JESSICA SALSBURY (Attorney, Casa de Maryland): There were different groups of workers who came in independently with the bad checks. So it started out with a group of six and then there was a group of four and then there was one day, I think, like 14 workers showed up.

NIILER: The subcontractors, Miguel and Freddie Canalez(ph) or Mt. Airy, Maryland, could not be reached for comment. Their attorney, Richard O'Connor(ph) or Rockville, Maryland, did not return several phone calls. The two Mississippi casinos are reopening this week.

Ms. SALSBURY: To see that these businesses will once again be flourishing and that the workers still haven't been paid a year later, is really hard for us to take. It's really hard for the workers to take.

NIILER: The Maryland suit is one of several filed in recent months on behalf of immigrant workers, most of whom are undocumented. Mary Bauer(ph) of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, has filed three such lawsuits.

Ms. MARY BAUER (Southern Poverty Law Center): Every immigrant worker that we have spoken with has told us a story about not being paid, or not being paid appropriately, for some job. It's really widespread and systematic.

NIILER: Bauer says federal officials haven't done enough to prevent worker abuse. But Assistant U.S. Labor Secretary Victoria Lipnic, says her office has recovered $1.5 million in back wages from contractors since January.

Ms. VICTORIA LIPNIC (Assistant U.S. Labor Secretary): We are using every enforcement tool available to us, and are certainly doing everything we can to make sure that our presence is known and that workers get paid.

NIILER: Federal law applies to both legal and illegal workers. Lipnic says 26 Labor Department inspectors have been assigned to the Gulf area. Eight speak Spanish. These inspectors will likely remain there for years to come.

For NPR News, I'm Eric Niiler.

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