Katrina’s Impact on Workers: Catastrophic

Like many Americans, I have spent the last week obsessed and devastated by the reports of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of the city of New Orleans, as well as parts of Mississippi and Alabama. Even with Labor Day occurring, it was hard to think about anything else. While it seems slightly unseemly to worry about it when lives are still very much at stake, Katrina not only ravaged one of the world’s most charming cities, but devastated the workplaces of hundreds of thousands of workers. While our contribution pales in comparison to the organizations such as the American Red Cross which are providing massive amounts of critical assistance to the displaced, here’s a roundup of some of the employment-related issues that Katrina’s destruction raises.

Massive Unemployment: Katrina has disrupted the work of close to a million individuals along the Gulf Coast, whose workplaces either no longer exist, or cannot function absent electricity, water, food and their workforce. Many of those displaced could ill afford any disruption in their paychecks. Now that this many individuals are out of work, and may be unable to work for six to nine months or more, there will be a massive amount of unemployment.

One expert predicts that “The situation probably will propel area unemployment rates now in the single digits to the double digits in coming months – even when one accounts for employment gains from rebuilding efforts.” (See San Diego Union Tribune article.) Just last week, it was reported that the unemployment rate had hit a four-year low of 4.9%. (See WebCPA article.) However, this report was issued before the effect of Katrina could be felt, so we may see a four-year high (or worse) in the very next report.

Those who have reached safety are now in the process of filing for unemployment benefits: many spent the Labor Day weekend starting the process. Special Disaster Unemployment Assistance is available, which expedites payments to workers. (See KLFY article.) Those affected should call 1-866-4-USA-DOL (1-866-487-2365) for information on benefits.

Currently, individuals may receive unemployment benefits for 26 weeks. However, Congress may extend that time, and is likely to extend benefits for those affected by Katrina just as benefits were last extended post 9/11, especially since it is very unlikely that most workers in the hardest-hit areas will be able to reassume their positions.

Physical and Psychological Hazards to Workers: Those continuing to work on the front lines in rescue and cleanup operations face daunting toxic hazards. Their work takes place in what is being called a “toxic bathtub.” Between sewage, rotting corpses, and chemical contamination including fuels and oils from gas stations and submerged cars, paints and solvents from small businesses and household cleaners and pesticides from peoples’ homes, they are likely to feel the effects of their heroism for years to come. (See CBS News article.) While the most immediate danger is infectious disease, only time will tell what other maladies will plague both victims and rescuers. (See Voice of America article.)

While the psychological threat to workers may seem less immediate than the physical one, the trauma of the unprecedented disaster is likely to cause long-term psychological harm to many if not all of those on the front lines. Two New Orleans police officers, including the department spokesperson, already have committed suicide with their service weapons, while a third of the force may have abandoned their positions. (See Times Online article.) While New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has offered all officers expense-paid trips to Las Vegas to decompress after their extraordinary efforts, most have declined the offer. (See New York Times article.) For more information on the stress that these workers will suffer, see the Department of Veteran’s Affairs Katrina page.

Workers Helping Workers: While there are a number of extremely worthy charitable efforts, one is specifically targeted for working people: the Union Community Fund. Sponsored by the AFL-CIO, it is labor’s charity for working families and communities in distress, and is working with the labor federations in the affected states and with relief organizations to target help to workers who need it most. Thus far, the UCF is setting up Worker Centers in Houston, Pearl, Miss., and Mobile, Ala., making computers and phones available to help working people get information and post messages letting family and friends know they are safe. Unions are also sending off caravans loaded with relief supplies and getting crucial information to emergency responders about what they must do to stay safe while delivering aid. To help the UCF meet its $500,000 fundraising goal, use this secured donation link: Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund.

This disaster will truly test the resiliency of the American workforce. Once the evacuees’ survival has been assured, let all of us do what we can to ensure that those who need and want to work are able to do so as quickly as possible. Between employers hiring and housing the evacuee workforce, and government agencies streamlining the aid process, workers will be able to actively participate in rebuilding their lives.

More Information:

Wall St. Journal: Employers Struggle to Pick UpThe Pieces After Katrina
USA Today: Hard-Hit Employers Improvise to Get Going;
States Gear Up to Provide Jobless Benefits
MSNBC.com: Impoverished Evacuees Begin Looking for Work

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.