As Texas prepares to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey devastated much of the state, and Florida starts picking up the pieces from the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Irma, emergency workers may face exploitation for the sake of greater profits and speedier project completion.
Past abuses after similar natural disasters have left laborers without all of their wages and with serious illnesses that could have been prevented with proper supervision and training, labor experts say.Â A large portion of these workers are undocumented and likely afraid to alert authorities when their rights are violated. On top of that, the Trump administrationâs approach to labor protections doesnât inspire confidence, according to workersâ safety experts who spoke to ThinkProgress.
Forty percent of Houston construction workers do not have health insurance, retirement, life insurance, sick leave, and paid time off,Â according toÂ a 2017 report from theÂ Austin-based Workers Defense Project, an organization that advocates for better health, safety, and labor standards. The report was the result of interviews with over 1,400 construction workers. On average, a construction worker diesÂ once every three daysÂ in Texas because of unsafe working conditions.
Texas is also theÂ only stateÂ in the country that doesnât require any form of workers compensation coverage, said Bo Delp,Â Director of the Better Builder Program at Workers Defense Project.
âAfter disasters like Katrina, there is a lot of construction going on â rebuilding, repairs, and remodels, and a lot of exploitation as well.Â Texas is a uniquely bad state for construction workers in terms of conditions,â Delp said. âThat is compounded with a disaster like Harvey, whenÂ we know, in other contexts, that this has led to exploitation on an unprecedented scale.â
âAfter disasters like Katrina, there is a lot of construction going on â rebuilding, repairs, and remodels, and a lot of exploitation as well.â
Studies after Hurricane Katrina found that wage theft and unhealthy working conditions were rampant and that undocumented workers were particularly vulnerable. A 2006Â studyÂ from theÂ New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice found that 61 percent of surveyed workers had experienced workplace abuses such as wage theft and health and safety violations. A similar 2009Â studyÂ by the University of California, Berkeley found that there were concerning differences in conditions for undocumented versus documented workers. Thirty-seven percent of undocumented workers said they were told they might be exposed to mold and asbestos, while 67 percent of documented workers reported they had been informed. Only 20 percent of undocumented workers said they were paid time and a half when they worked overtime.
Delp said that there are âgood honest contractorsâ in the state, but he is concerned about âfly-by-nightâ contractors who will eschew safety measures to get things done cheaply and quickly.
Sasha Legette of the Houston BusinessÂ Liaison worksÂ alongside community partners and policymakers, including the mayorâs office, to ensure better wage and safety conditions for workers. So far, she said that she has been impressed with Mayor Sylvester Turnerâs response to the disaster. But she hopes the state doesnât rush it in a way that could harm workers.
âWe know that the water and flooding has created a very toxic environment and what we donât want to see happen is that workers or that the city is so eager to rebuild that the safety of those who are going to do that work is not taken under consideration,â Legette said.
âThey can identify hazards and prevent the need for OSHA to have to enforce after the fact,â Goldstein-Gelb said.
Sharon Block, executive director of Harvard Universityâs Labor and Worklife Program and former principal deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Labor, said she is concerned about the administrationâs potential response to the recent disasters.
Often, OSHA will begin with âcompliance assistance mode,â which means they will help employers comply with rules, and then will eventually move to enforcement mode. But the Bush administration never moved into enforcement mode after Katrina, and she worries that the Trump administration could do the same.
Block is also worried about whether there are enough resources at the agency.Â In addition to the proposed cuts and business-friendly approach of the administration, there is no OSHA chief.
âThey donât have real leadership in the agency,â Block said. âSo having watched Sandy and the Gulf oil spill, these sort of unexpected disaster responses, even for an agency like OSHA, itâs really complicated and itâs really resource intensive.â
âBased on their level of staffing and resources and everything else about their approach on worker protection issues, Iâd be worried about how workers post-Harvey and post-Irma are going to be effective.â
âThere is a lot at risk,â Block added. âBased on their level of staffing and resources and everything else about their approach on worker protection issues, Iâd be worried about how workers post-Harvey and post-Irma are going to be effective.â
There are some potential downsides to not having an OSHA chief at a time like this, such as getting assistance from FEMA to do work on the ground to address workersâ health and safety needs, said Barab.
âA lot of the activity around these national disasters involves agencies working together,â Barab said. âIt requires agencies having frank and candid conversations, [such as] getting FEMA to be more accommodating to the health needs of workers. It always helps to have a higher level person doing that.â
In order to get OSHA staff to hurricane-affected areas in Texas or Florida, OSHA would have to transfer some compliance and enforcement staff there temporarily. But this is expensive and the agency has been chronically underfunded. To reimburse the expenses of doing this, FEMA can provide supplemental assistance, Barab explained, but the state must request this and, on top of that, the state has to contribute 25 percent of the funding.
âTo pony up about 25 percent of cost â we havenât seen a lot of states willing do that. I am not optimistic about Texas and I donât see them wanting to spend money to get more OSHA enforcement there,â Barab said. âFEMA has the ability to waive that requirement, but they generally donât, and didnât, in fact, after [Hurricane] Sandy.â
âWe already had pre-existing relationships with nonprofits that were continuing to train immigrants and day workers during [Hurricane] Sandy,â Barab said. âIn terms of being able to reach out to OSHA, the nonprofits had a relationship with these workers and other groups had relationship with OSHA.â
Marianela AcuĂ±a Arreaza, executive director ofÂ Fe y Justicia Worker Center in Houston, an organization that helps low-wage workers learn about their rights and organizes workers, said the group has been through post-disaster health and safety trainings and has a healthy relationship with the local OSHA office. The center is educating workers on what kind of respirators to use if theyâre working in a structure that has mold, for example, while also keeping an eye on any worker safety and wage violations. The center has also benefited as subgrantee from the Susan Harwood program for the last five years.
âUndocumented workers specifically fear retaliation in terms of losing a job or an employer calling ICE on them, and that happens a lot. It is definitely a barrier for people to come forward,â AcuĂ±a Arreaza said. âEven other immigrants who have other statuses â some of the fears are similar because they are still worried about losing their job or having their employer retaliate.â
âWe try to repeat that and and say, âNo, you have rights.â And people start getting it after we repeat it enough.â
By having a staff of mostly immigrants, she said the organization has created an environment where undocumented workers would feel comfortable, never asking workers about immigration status, and working with other nonprofits and local churches to encourage people to come in.
âWe try to repeat that and and say, âNo, you have rights.â And people start getting it after we repeat it enough,â AcuĂ±a Arreaza said. âBut there is a huge disconnect that comes from documentation but also comes from not being able to speak English or fully speak English, other cultural barriers, and racism. Lacking papers does not help, but there is this layered separation from justice in the system of worker rights.”
This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on September 11, 2017. Reprinted with permission.Â
About the Author: Casey QuinlanÂ is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress. She covers economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.