Houston Is Being Rebuilt on a Foundation of Wage Theft

The exploitation after the storm.

Bryce Covert January 22, 2018

Oscar (L), a day laborer, talks with Mauricio Iglesias of the Workers Defense Project, who goes by “Chele,” in a Home Depot parking lot in southeast Houston on Dec. 8, 2017. Oscar says he’s had his wages stolen on construction jobs “many times.” Once he tried calling the police, but they said they couldn’t do anything. (Photo by Felix Sanchez)

To gird them­selves against Houston’s freak­ish sub-40-degree weath­er, the jor­naleros, or day labor­ers, draw the hoods of their sweat­shirts so tight that just their noses peek out. Hud­dled in groups of four or five across a Home Depot park­ing lot, the clus­ters dis­in­te­grate when Mau­ri­co Chele” Igle­sias approaches.

'[Contractors] claim that because we were in a state of emergency due to Harvey, they are not required to give overtime, and that is a plain lie,' says Maurico “Chele” Iglesias, an organizer with the Workers Defense Project. 'Harvey is being used as a reason for more abuses.'

Although Igle­sias, an orga­niz­er with the Work­ers Defense Project, has been com­ing to this park­ing lot every oth­er week for five months, he rarely sees a famil­iar face. It’s always dif­fer­ent peo­ple,” he says. They always keep moving.”

The work­ers, pri­mar­i­ly from El Sal­vador, Hon­duras and Mex­i­co, now liv­ing in a state not known for its warmth toward immi­grants, eye Igle­sias with cau­tion and edge away. His beard and dark glass­es could eas­i­ly be mis­tak­en for a hip­ster aes­thet­ic. But once he starts speak­ing in Span­ish, his ease talk­ing with day labor­ers quick­ly becomes appar­ent. A few cir­cle back to hear what he has to say.

The jor­naleros have become Houston’s go-to rebuild­ing corps in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey. When the Cat­e­go­ry 4 hur­ri­cane made land­fall Aug. 25, 2017, it destroyed an esti­mat­ed 30,00040,000 homes in the area and caused, by some esti­mates, near­ly $200 bil­lion in dam­age.

The work agree­ments these men enter into are loose at best. When a rental pick­up pulls up, four men run over to it, knock­ing on the win­dow. One gets in after an exchange of a few words, and the truck dri­ves off.

On Dec. 8, 2017, Igle­sias is here to gin up inter­est in an upcom­ing wage theft clin­ic and a two-day OSHA-cer­ti­fied train­ing about health and safe­ty pro­to­cols for gut­ting, clean­ing and rebuild­ing dam­aged homes.

Wage theft and safe­ty vio­la­tions were ram­pant in Houston’s low-wage con­struc­tion indus­try even before the storm hit, accord­ing to local work­er cen­ters. One study found that 12.4 per­cent of con­struc­tion work­ers in the city suf­fered injuries on the job. The Texas con­struc­tion indus­try is … incred­i­bly dan­ger­ous,” says José Garza, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Work­ers Defense Project. For years, the indus­try has absolute­ly failed to pri­or­i­tize safety.”

Har­vey only exac­er­bat­ed the prob­lems, orga­niz­ers say. Con­trac­tors came in from out of town, lured by FEMA mon­ey and work, and may not fear anoth­er state’s enforce­ment agen­cies. Small, inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors and indi­vid­ual home­own­ers may not know or fol­low the rules. Sub­con­trac­tors are under pres­sure to reduce costs and may refuse to pay over­time or not pay until a job is fin­ished — dol­ing out noth­ing if a work­er gets injured.

Con­struc­tion work of any kind pos­es many safe­ty risks: falls from roofs, injuries from heavy machin­ery or heavy lift­ing, eye dam­age from fly­ing dust or fiber, ear dam­age from loud machines, lung dam­age from fumes or gas­es. But hur­ri­cane recov­ery brings its own par­tic­u­lar dangers.

Mold grows ram­pant in flood­ed homes and can cause seri­ous res­pi­ra­to­ry prob­lems with­out prop­er train­ing and equip­ment. Old­er hous­es may have lead and asbestos in the walls. And storm waters don’t just bring flood dam­age: They also con­tain sewage and some­times chem­i­cals from near­by fac­to­ries. All the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion that came [in with storm water] stays in the dry­wall, stays in the car­pet, and peo­ple are tak­ing all of that out and car­ry­ing that and get­ting sick,” says Mar­i­anela Acuña Arreaza, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Hous­ton-based Fe y Jus­ti­cia Work­er Cen­ter. In Octo­ber 2017, Josue Zuri­ta, who had been repair­ing homes dam­aged by Har­vey, died of a flesh-eat­ing bac­te­r­i­al infec­tion like­ly picked up on a job site.

In the Home Depot Lot, the sto­ries of exploita­tion flow quick­ly. After first deny­ing that there are any health or safe­ty haz­ards, two jor­naleros acknowl­edge that not all con­trac­tors pro­vide required gloves or safe­ty glass­es. Many of them sport sneak­ers rather than the work shoes or boots man­dat­ed by OSHA for construction.

Fran­cis­co, a younger man with a spiky mus­tache, pulls out an arm he had kept tucked inside a sweat­shirt for warmth to dis­play a swollen set of stitch­es just below his wrist. He had an acci­dent with a machine at a work­site that required a trip to the hos­pi­tal. He received no work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion for his injuries — and no pay for the hours he worked that day.

José, whose light­weight boots are splat­tered with paint and dust, says he was cheat­ed out of pay for 20 hours spent remov­ing sheetrock at a post-Har­vey site. An old­er man with a patchy beard, also named José, tells a sto­ry about a work­er who was dri­ven to a job site far away and left strand­ed there with­out being paid. When he tracked down the man who hired him, he was shot in the arm and stom­ach. He sur­vived — and is still show­ing up look­ing for work.

In Novem­ber 2017, the Fe y Jus­ti­cia Work­er Cen­ter and the Nation­al Day Labor­er Orga­niz­ing Net­work released a sur­vey of 361 day labor­ers. It found that more than a quar­ter had been vic­tims of wage theft in the after­math of the hur­ri­cane — about half the num­ber of inci­dents over the past year hap­pened in the first four weeks after the storm — with the total wages they were col­lec­tive­ly owed exceed­ing $20,000.

Eighty-five per­cent of the day labor­ers sur­veyed said they hadn’t received any health and safe­ty train­ing at their work­sites, and more than a third report­ed hav­ing been injured. Thir­ty-two per­cent are doing the work with­out the prop­er gloves, 40 per­cent with­out pro­tec­tive glass­es, 41 per­cent with­out steel-toed boots, 61 per­cent with­out a res­pi­ra­tor and 64 per­cent with­out a hard hat.

Work­ers are fix­ing up … homes or apart­ments with­out the prop­er breath­ing equip­ment,” Igle­sias says. Some of them get sick the first night: fever, itchy throat, blood­shot eyes.”

Mar­tin Mares, a com­pact man with lined, sunken eyes and heav­i­ly worn cow­boy boots, says he and his wife decid­ed to find work on Face­book after the storm hit. A vet­er­an Hous­ton con­struc­tion work­er, he found an ad promis­ing $120 a day, sev­en days a week. At one work site, the work­ers had to share gloves, over­alls and glass­es. The masks they were giv­en only pro­tect­ed against dust, not mold. And the gloves were made out of cloth and only use­ful for remov­ing garbage, not car­pet or sheetrock. Yet work­ers only got one pair to last the entire day. He even wit­nessed preg­nant women using tox­ic chem­i­cals with­out protection.

Although they said they had expe­ri­ence and it was a big com­pa­ny … the peo­ple man­ag­ing the projects didn’t have enough expe­ri­ence to han­dle 100 peo­ple,” he says.

When he went to pick up his pay, he says, it took four hours of nego­ti­a­tion, and even then he was short­ed $10 a day. I don’t believe that a busi­ness of this size doesn’t have mon­ey to pay,” he says. It’s part of a sys­tem of fraud.”

Igle­sias believes things are only get­ting worse as the recov­ery con­tin­ues. At a mid-Novem­ber wage theft clin­ic he held, eight work­ers showed up who hadn’t been paid any­thing at all for Har­vey-relat­ed work. He also received a com­plaint about a large, com­mer­cial con­struc­tion site where work­ers were putting in 60 hours a week but not get­ting overtime.

[Con­trac­tors] claim that because we were in a state of emer­gency due to Har­vey, they are not required to give over­time, and that is a plain lie,” he says. Har­vey is being used as a rea­son for more abuses.”

When Pres­i­dent Trump vis­it­ed Texas in the wake of Har­vey, he basked in applause and boast­ed about the recov­ery efforts. You have been just out­stand­ing,” he told local offi­cials. We won’t say con­grat­u­la­tions … We’ll con­grat­u­late each oth­er when it’s all fin­ished, but you have been terrific.”

Offi­cials sim­i­lar­ly pat­ted them­selves on the back in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Sandy, which hit New York and the East Coast in 2012. Nobody’s ever respond­ed this way to a dis­as­ter. [We have] actu­al­ly fixed things,” May­or Michael Bloomberg said of his administration’s efforts. We haven’t just had press releas­es, we’ve actu­al­ly done an enor­mous amount.” He claimed the effort was so impres­sive some­one would write a book about it.

Yet what these politi­cians are prais­ing, usu­al­ly, is the work of unsung day labor­ers. In the wake of Sandy, work­ers came from as far as Geor­gia to rebuild New York. The work­er cen­ter Make the Road New York was a first line of defense against exploitation.

The sit­u­a­tion after the storm for work­ers, in par­tic­u­lar undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers, was pret­ty bleak,” says Sara Cul­li­nane, then a staff attor­ney at Make the Road New York and now direc­tor of Make the Road New Jer­sey. Work­ers had sto­ries sim­i­lar to those of the Hous­ton jor­naleros: dri­ven to far­away sites, giv­en no pro­tec­tive equip­ment, and short­ed on wages.

In Hous­ton, Fe y Jus­ti­cia was the only work­er cen­ter in the city for 11 years before Work­ers Defense Project set up shop in 2017. It’s cur­rent­ly at capac­i­ty for wage theft cas­es. At Arreaza’s last count, the orga­ni­za­tion was get­ting about 20 calls a day, 10 of them regard­ing new claims. It’s crazy, it’s unbe­liev­able,” she says. It’s real­ly intense.”

If a work­er brings a com­plaint, the orga­ni­za­tions have a vari­ety of tac­tics at their dis­pos­al: Bring direct lit­i­ga­tion them­selves, send the com­plaint to a state agency or, if the case seems dif­fi­cult to pros­e­cute, orga­nize direct action. Some­times the best thing to do is to show up with 20 peo­ple out­side their house and demand pay­ment,” Garza says.

Since Har­vey, Fe y Jus­ti­cia has also trained about 200 peo­ple in how to use pro­tec­tive equip­ment, what symp­toms of expo­sure look like, and how to pro­tect peo­ple from haz­ards like mold. Igle­sias esti­mates he has spo­ken with hun­dreds of work­ers and tried to edu­cate them as part of his outreach.

It isn’t only up to work­ers’ cen­ters to pro­tect work­ers, of course. Wage theft is ille­gal and the purview of the fed­er­al Depart­ment of Labor, as well as the Texas Work­force Com­mis­sion. State and fed­er­al OSHA offi­cials are tasked with ensur­ing work­places are safe. But they can be slow to respond. I don’t think we have heard a ton from them,” Garza says. We haven’t seen the kind of lead­er­ship [at OSHA and the DOL] that demon­strates that they are mak­ing Hous­ton a priority.”

Accord­ing to a 2015 inves­ti­ga­tion by ABC13, the city’s OSHA offices, like many around the coun­try, are extreme­ly under­staffed, with only two dozen inspec­tors to cov­er the city’s job sites, includ­ing its oil refiner­ies and boom­ing con­struc­tion indus­try. Houston’s OSHA offices con­duct­ed more than 1,000 safe­ty brief­in­gs as part of their Har­vey response, but were not able to say whether they had inspect­ed any hur­ri­cane-affect­ed sites.

Nei­ther the Depart­ment of Labor, the Texas OSHA office nor the Texas Work­force Com­mis­sion respond­ed to requests for infor­ma­tion about wage theft enforce­ment after Harvey.

Ulti­mate­ly, orga­niz­ers say, the goal is to empow­er work­ers them­selves. We want work­ers to orga­nize, to know their rights, to make sure that they claim their rights and … inform oth­er work­ers about their rights as well,” Igle­sias says.

Los dere­chos lab­o­rales son uni­ver­sales,” he tells the work­ers at the Home Depot lot: Labor rights are uni­ver­sal. He gives them tips to help hold con­trac­tors account­able, like tak­ing pho­tos of license plates and drop­ping pins in Google Maps at con­struc­tion sites.

Work­er empow­er­ment can also be har­nessed to push for longer-term changes. The real impor­tant process … is help­ing work­ing peo­ple to have agency and to build pow­er,” Garza says. And then con­vert­ing that pow­er into mean­ing­ful pol­i­cy change that ensures we don’t have to face this sit­u­a­tion every time a hur­ri­cane rolls through town.” His orga­ni­za­tion has been in talks with local lead­ers about pass­ing leg­is­la­tion, such as a liv­ing wage and work­ers’ comp for con­struc­tion work­ers, although he said every­thing is still pre­lim­i­nary. It is not the moon that we are ask­ing for,” he says. It is basic standards.”

In fact, plen­ty of oth­er places have insti­tut­ed gov­ern­ment con­tract­ing poli­cies that encour­age devel­op­ers to pay well and cov­er employ­ees with work­ers com­pen­sa­tion: Accord­ing to research by the Illi­nois Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute, at least 224 cities and coun­ties in the U.S. had adopt­ed such poli­cies as of 2015.

Ask­ing day labor­ers to push for change can be dif­fi­cult. Mar­tin Mares notes that many work­ers he knows don’t both­er to fight for the pay they’re owed. Some don’t want to waste hours that could be spent doing more work or rest­ing. For oth­ers, deal­ing with courts and judges is far too risky giv­en fears over immi­gra­tion enforce­ment. Oth­ers sim­ply accept the con­di­tions they work in.

But that’s not the point,” Mares says. The point is to show that there are laws that pro­tect us … and show that the pow­er that work­ers have is big­ger than the dollar.”

Bryce Covert, a con­tribut­ing op-ed writer at the New York Times, has writ­ten for The New Repub­lic, The Nation, the Wash­ing­ton Post, the New York Dai­ly News, New York Mag­a­zine and Slate, and has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC and NPR. She won a 2016 Excep­tion­al Mer­it in Media Award from the Nation­al Women’s Polit­i­cal Caucus.
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