The Plight of New Orleans Workers

Hands hired to clean up the Big Easy have been subjected to wage theft, exposure to dangerous substances, layoffs, tough discipline and discrimination

Rachel Metz

A day laborer removes debris from a house to be gutted in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans on August 29, 2006--the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

More than half of New Orleans workers have been victims of labor abuse, according to a new report from Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), a nonprofit that mobilizes U.S. religious communities on workers’ rights. Despite these frequent violations of labor law, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) concluded 37 percent fewer wage and hour investigations last year than in the previous year. 

Working On Faith: A Faithful Response to Worker Abuse in New Orleans” analyzes IWJ’s 2006 surveys and interviews with 218 workers in a variety of jobs from construction to retail to bank tellers. According to the report, workers have experienced abuses including wage theft (47 percent), exposure to dangerous substances at work (58 percent), being unfairly fired or disciplined (42 percent) and discrimination (29 percent). 

New Orleans is a case of extremes, [showing] what happened when everything failed,” says Ted Smukler, public policy director at IWJ and principal author of Working on Faith.” 

The report identifies several 2005 Bush administration decisions that particularly hurt workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) August 31 suspension of health and safety standard enforcement, though reversed in most areas after five months of workers handling and inhaling mold, asbestos and other toxins, continued in seven parishes in and around New Orleans. On Sept. 6, 2005, the Department of Homeland Security suspended employers requiring to check immigration documentation (but not employees requiring to have documentation). This enabled employers to hire undocumented immigrants and then call in immigration authorities on payday to avoid paying workers. The wages being kept from workers were not as significant as they might have been, however, because of a Sept. 8, 2005 presidential proclamation suspending the requirement that private contractors receiving federal dollars pay at least the prevailing industry wage. 

The report notes that these post-Katrina changes are only the latest example of a long-term decline in DOL’s investigative and enforcement capacity. But according to Smukler, until the current Bush administration, DOL officials would at least make unannounced visits to work sites independent of worker complaints. Now, their emphasis is solely on voluntary compliance by employers. The DOL’s budget reflects this shift. 

Unfortunately, this new reliance on workers to help enforce labor law is not effectively coupled with publicity about worker rights or DOL services. In IWJ’s survey, not one worker mentioned the DOL as either the source of information about what to do if abused at work or as an agency at which one could file complaints. Not surprisingly, almost no workers (a mere 0.5 percent) filed any complaints about labor abuses. 

Even when workers do try to file complaints, they may not receive adequate help. Mary Bauer, director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, says, From our experiences, the resources [the DOL] devoted just weren’t that good. It was hard to reach people, their language capacity was poor, and they didn’t track the cases when they had them.” 

In the year after Katrina, the Department of Labor completed only 44 wage and hour investigations on behalf of the thousands of workers in New Orleans. Every worker that we talk to still has been cheated out of wages or not paid,” says Bauer. Additionally, says Smukler, If employers do get caught, they only have to pay back wages [without interest, fines or penalties].” 

In its Dec. 7, 2005 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office called for a review of OSHA’s strategy to protect workers’ safety. Now, after several Congress staffers have read Working on Faith, Congress is listening. For the first time that Smukler can remember, Congress has committed to hold hearings on the DOL. The Senate Subcommittee on employment and workplace safety, chaired by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), has scheduled a hearing on issues with labor law enforcement on June 19, and the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), plans to hold a hearing on labor abuses in New Orleans in July. The hearings are not likely to help the workers already harmed by labor law violations. But, as Bauer says, It’s certainly not too late to do better in the future.”

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