Post-Sandy Relief Workers Toil in Tough Labor Conditions

Michelle Chen

ConEd employees and other relief workers in New York City face dangerous environmental conditions and exploitation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

More than two weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, residents of storm-battered communities from Coney Island to Long Beach are still living with darkness, squalor and a growing sense that they’ve been abandoned by official response teams (notwithstanding valiant grassroots volunteer efforts).

But as public frustration mounts, the emergency responders, manual laborers and utility workers on the front lines have their own frustrations. Many are laboring under precarious work conditions while their own neighborhoods still struggle to recover from storm damage.

In places that are still lacking utilities – including many public housing units that had their services preemptively shut down as a protective measure – a wave of anger is beginning to crest. The Long Island Power Authority in particular has come under fire for leaving tens of thousands customers still powerless as of November 12. And New York Daily News’ Denis Hamill recently reported on the lonely struggle of Far Rockaway residents. When asked about the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) providing clean-up assistance, Cynthia Torres complained,“They never came once to see how we were doing when we were living for 10 days in the pitch dark with no phones, no hot water, no heat, no cable, sometimes no drinking water or food, no nothing. Two NYCHA guys came today for the first time since the storm.”

Storm-hit New Yorkers have voiced frustration at the chaos” of ConEd’s response, particularly poor-to-nonexistent communications with customer service.

But the workers leading the power restoration are similarly frustrated by what they see as an underlying crisis of an eroded, overwhelmed workforce. Following the storm, Local 1-2, the utility workers union that led a groundbreaking labor standoff at ConEd last summer, issued a statement suggesting that exasperated customers should understand that the damage exceeded official estimates and was far beyond workers’ capacity in the immediate term: if you think a repair crew is slow to get to your area, please keep in mind that we are just like you, and that we are seeing things that have never happened before. It is that serious.”

As public ire crests across devastated shoreline neighborhoods, unions may have an opening to argue that ConEd’s derelictions began well before the storm, and workers were early casualties of a disinvestment in institutional capacity. For all the talk of making the electricity grid smarter, Local 1-2 spokesperson John Melia blames the stupidity of a company that they say actively undermines” its attriting union workforce and created overreliance on outside contractors. While the management actively undermines the workforce” in its day-to-day operations, he says, a Sandy-sized tragedy exposes to the public that this is a cynical company, and they get caught in their cynicism all the time.”

Amid the damp wreckage and frayed wires, meanwhile, utility workers are caught on both ends of the recovery, providing the relief that they may need themselves. Melia says:

We have dozens of members who’ve lost everything they own, but they’re still at work. Our men and women are on 12-hour shifts, have been for two weeks. No time off. This aftermath is gonna be several months more in duration before anything that anyone could call normalcy returns to the electric system. Or to the people of Staten Island and South Brooklyn, or parts of Queens. I can’t convey to you the scale of devastation.

According to Joel Shufro, head of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH), situations like Sandy are ripe for labor exploitation. In the chaos following a disaster, safety protections for recovery workers are sometimes ignored. As we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and of the World Trade Center collapse on September 11, disasters tend to produce environmental hazards, such as industrial waste and asbestos contamination. NYCOSH has been coordinating with regulatory authorities and issued guidance on hazards workers and volunteers may encounter, like toxic exposures, construction injuries, or just lack of appropriate safety gear. 

The city’s informal, non-union immigrant laborers are especially at risk of injury and labor violations, Shufro tells Working In These Times: We know that, as in Katrina and as at the World Trade Center, immigrant workers will be hired and used,” Noting reports of some relief workers being hired casually on the street, he adds, our concern is that for non-unionized workers who are desperate for work in this economy, they are ripe to be exploited, as we have seen in the past.” Wage theft has plagued immigrant day laborers even in non-disaster circumstances.

Vincent Alvarez of the AFL-CIO-affiliated New York City Central Labor Council, which represents public, private-sector and building trades unions, tells Working In These Times, We will work with groups like NYCOSH… and government entities, too, to make sure that all working people, not just unionized workers, but all working people, understand and know their rights and what level of protection that they’re supposed to have and what’s supposed to be given to them by their employers.” Underscoring the impact on workers’ communities, Alvarez noted that about 130,000 members live in Sandy-hit areas, and the Council is currently juggling efforts to help locals coordinate job duties as well as relief for their own people.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has requested a $30 billion federal relief package that could include, according to the New York Times, a proposal to replace the region’s power grid with a so-called smart grid” to streamline responses to disaster-related outages and other measures to fortify regional defenses. Labor advocates are preparing to work with government and business to shape the recovery investment plans.

It’s still hard to find the words to describe the depth of the damage, but one thing that does talk in this city is money. The pending investment in the city’s electrical and transit systems will open the next battle over what kind of structures will be rebuilt, and for whom. As the recovery process picks up momentum, workers need protection from exploitation as much as their communities deserve protection from disaster.

Note: the mention of the ConEdison labor dispute has been corrected: it was a lockout, following a long contract standoff and the threat of a strike.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

Brandon Johnson
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