'I Have Rights:' How Undocumented Laborers Are Exploited During Disaster Recovery

'I Have Rights:' How Undocumented Laborers Are Exploited During Disaster Recovery<i></i>
Illustration: Jim Cooke (G/O Media)
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Mario used to work. A lot. Twelve-hour workdays and seven-day workweeks are kind of the expectation when your job is to rebuild after a storm—and you’re undocumented. He hasn’t worked in about a year, though.

When Hurricane Michael roared through Florida last October, the 47-year-old left his New Orleans home knowing there would be plenty of work, and he had experience working in recovery after Katrina. Mario—an undocumented worker who asked to go by his nickname for fear of retaliation—first found work in Florida clearing out some of the state’s 72 million trees Michael damaged. Eventually, though, his day-to-day involved climbing roofs to cover homes with blue tarps to protect the interior from further damage. While the Army Corps of Engineers installed some 7,800 blue roofs throughout the state, all it took was one to change Mario’s life forever. He suffered injuries on the job that will be with him for the rest of his life.

It’s a story that’s played out countless times. Undocumented workers undergird disaster recovery efforts in the U.S., and a number of seedy companies employ them and profit off of their work. In addition to working in unsafe conditions, several post-disaster assessments by universities found undocumented recovery workers are subject to wage theft, all while companies hold the prospect of making a call to Immigration and Customs Enforcement if workers complain. And in Donald Trump’s America, the threat of deportation is more real than ever even as the climate crisis and need for disaster recovery deepens.

That’s left workers like Mario in a precarious position with mounting medical bills, an inability to work, and fear of seeking help. And while it shows that our immigration and disaster recovery systems are currently corrupted, a growing number of groups are looking for solutions that will educate workers on their rights and help bring undocumented people out of the shadows.

Hurricane Michael made landfall this week a year ago as a Category 5 storm. It hit Florida’s poorest region and Panama City was left devoid of buildings, trees, and, for many who called it home, hope. That’s the power of 160 mph winds and 14 feet of storm surge. Since then, the federal government has dished out nearly $1.9 billion to the 18 affected counties and removed nearly 33 million cubic yards of debris, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Recovery involves construction, and immigrants make up almost a quarter of the construction industry workforce, according to the National Association of Homebuilders. In states such as California and Texas, that number inches upwards of 40 percent—and these estimates don’t even include undocumented immigrants. This is an industry facing a severe labor shortage; some companies will take anyone willing to work these days. And the need increases in areas hit by disasters like Hurricane Michael.

Cleaning up all that debris after such a catastrophic event is a dangerous task. While the government attributed 16 deaths directly to the hurricane, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted in its Hurricane Michael report another 43 peopled died indirectly from the storm. How? Medical issues, traffic accidents, and falls.

Mario, who came to the U.S. from Honduras 13 years ago, nearly added to that statistic in the aftermath of the storm. When his employer, Louisiana-based FCA Construction, transitioned the work crew from trees to roofs, Mario alleges it demanded they cover 10 houses a day with the blue tarps. Earther has repeatedly contacted FCA Construction via phone and email for comment, but the company has yet to respond.

On the Friday of Mario’s second week on the job, he was finishing up a roof when heavy rain began to fall. As he walked down the roof to secure the tarp and prevent the wind from ripping it off, a strong gust threw him off balance. With nothing to grab on to, he fell.

Mario was out for nearly a day in the hospital and awoke to learn his spine, left ankle, right shoulder, and both knees were damaged. Doctors used more than 40 staples to close the massive gash on his head. He even lost some of his eyesight because of brain trauma.

“None of this has been easy, to have all of one’s plans ruined,” Mario told Earther in Spanish, “but everything happens because God has a plan, and he knows what’s in store for me.”

Falls are the leading cause of death in the construction industry, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. They can be avoided, though, through proper worker training, head protection, and safety gear such as a harness and anchor. Mario alleges the company only provided him with a helmet, but it went flying off when he fell. Proper training might have advised him to keep it fastened. Independent contractors can legally skip some of the safety training and equipment that companies must offer their full-time staff as full-time employees are treated differently than contractors under U.S. labor laws. Meanwhile, these companies still reap profit from this labor without dealing with any consequences that may result from injuries that occur on the worksite.

Many undocumented laborers also don’t realize it, federal labor laws protect them. They protect everyone working in the U.S., but seeking such protection may feel too risky for individuals who’ve built their lives in the U.S. yet don’t have papers.

The companies that employ undocumented workers know this and exploit it to their advantage while likely making their profit off of public funds. When homeowners receive a check from FEMA to fix their homes, they’re free to hire whomever they please. Some families may unknowingly entrust their home repairs to a company that depends on underpaid undocumented laborers. That’s one way federal dollars can make it into the hands of these kinds of companies. FEMA also awards contracts to large companies that may hire subcontractors that then hire more subcontractors. That money can eventually funnel its way into the accounts of some shoddy companies.

“There is a very high potential for the exploitation of ‘undocumented’ laborers, and this kind of abuse is very well documented in other industries, like agriculture, so the potential—if not the actual instance—[for FEMA dollars to reach these contractors] is very real,” Roberto Barrios, an anthropology professor at Southern Illinois University, told Earther in an email.

Stan Marek runs a Texas-based construction company that’s handled recovery work. Hurricane Harvey was the last major storm Marek Brothers Construction Company worked on. Marek has seen the exploitation of undocumented labor up close. He told Earther his company doesn’t knowingly employ any undocumented folks, though, because his company is too big to fly under the government’s radar the way these other smaller companies might. Every single one of his employees needs to submit identification and a Social Security number, he said, which should automatically disqualify undocumented folks from working for him. Still, many workers across the U.S. use fake Social Security numbers to work around this obstacle, as government-led research has found.

Instead, labor brokers or independent contractors hire these individuals as independent subcontractors, Marek explained. There, workers are vulnerable to wage theft because, as he put it, what are they going to do? Undocumented workers don’t usually trust the police or law enforcement to protect them when these institutions are the same ones putting them in cells and sending them back to countries they’ve worked so hard to escape. Marek wishes he could hire undocumented workers and give them the training, protection, and pay they deserve, even authoring a piece in the Houston Chronicle for a path forward. But at the moment, the backward immigration system in the U.S. just won’t let him.

A volunteer rebuilding project on July 7th, 2019, in Youngstown, Florida, aimed at demonstrating that the workers are “Here To Build.”
A volunteer rebuilding project on July 7th, 2019, in Youngstown, Florida, aimed at demonstrating that the workers are “Here To Build.”

“We need those people,” Marek told Earther. “We need a law. We need to change the law where people can hire these undocumented workers on a visa and let them fix the storm damage.”

Why should the shadow economy get these hard workers? Not only would Marek’s proposal benefit companies like his; it’d also benefit the greater economy by bringing in more income taxes and addressing the labor shortage the construction industry faces.

Still, Marek’s idea to bring workers out of the shadows remains just that: an idea. Meanwhile, the threats people like Mario face are real. Mario can’t work in construction anymore. His right shoulder remains broken. One of his spinal discs is shattered, and it’s hitting a nerve that causes random migraines and neck pain.

Instead, he depends on the worker’s compensation he receives through an ongoing claim his lawyer filed with FCA Construction. In his free time, he brings attention to the injustices that workers like him suffer. He’s a member of Resilience Force, a nonprofit that formed last year in wake of Hurricane Michael to provide support to other undocumented recovery workers.

The organization hopes to transform the disaster economy so that workers can build wealth from this work and not end up injured. So far, it’s helped launch a lawsuit against Cotton Holdings Inc., a Texas-based disaster company, on behalf of eight workers who helped rebuild the Florida Keys after Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court of Southern Florida in September, alleges that some workers received no pay while others had their paychecks bounce. This company allegedly failed to pay the defendants “the minimum wages and overtime compensation due to them under the law, despite the fact the plaintiffs had regularly worked far in excess of 40 hours per week for weeks at a time,” state the allegations in the lawsuit. This case is only the beginning of what Resilience Force hopes to accomplish. Earther reached out to Cotton Holdings Inc. for comment on the lawsuit via email and phone and has yet to receive a response.

“We believe that this disaster rebuilding industry could be a source of good jobs and racially just conditions,” Saket Soni, executive director of Resilience Force, told Earther. “This workforce could rise to become the middle class of the cities they’re rebuilding.”

Not all workers seek work in cities they don’t live in the way Mario did. Candido Batiz Alvarez was living in Houston when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017. He was already working in the construction sector and when he and his family were spared from the storm’s damage, he decided to help others who weren’t so lucky by demolishing and reconstructing flooded homes. He redid kitchens and bathrooms, replacing rotting wood and transported materials between sites never knowing what time the workday would end. Some days, he’d be done by 11 p.m. Others, by 1 a.m.

He worked hard for two weeks, but his employers didn’t pay the salary they had initially offered, Alvarez alleges. Before Alvarez and his co-workers could complain, the company allegedly fled the city without paying them all they were owed. He had heard about this happening to others after Hurricane Katrina, but the company seemed so legit. He didn’t expect to get played.

“The truth is it’s worrisome to see companies like these that come to other states to rob people’s salaries who are working to push their families and country forward,” Alvarez told Earther in Spanish. “We’re fighting because this can’t happen anymore. We need to speak up and not be afraid so that this stops happening.”

Alvarez is undocumented, but he’s not scared to speak out because, as he put it, “I’m an immigrant, but I have rights.” And he’s right.

“Undocumented workers are entitled to the same legal protections that all workers are, but what happens is that the totality of our system is really set up to allow the exploitation of immigrant workers,” Jose Garza, executive director of Texas-based labor rights organization Workers Defense, told Earther. “In the context of recovery or in reconstruction, those problems can really be much worse.”

And the problems Alvarez saw weren’t the exception; they were the rule. A 2017 report from the University of Illinois at Chicago found that more than one-quarter of the 361 day laborers surveyed (most of whom were undocumented) in Houston had suffered wage theft in the four weeks immediately after Hurricane Harvey. More than $20,000 had been stolen from these workers in total. In addition, few workers received proper training or information about the risks their work posed, such as exposure to mold, asbestos, or any hazardous chemicals storm damage may have released into the environment.

“Immigrant workers in that city are, as we say in the report, second responders,” Nik Theodore, the report’s author and director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Urban Economic Development, told Earther. “They’re the ones who go in and help businesses and families clean up after major natural disasters. These workers are basically working without much protection, doing the hard work to get their lives back on track.”

Throughout U.S. history, immigrants have played a key role in building the country in times of need. During the labor shortage of World War II, the U.S. launched the Bracero Program to bring millions of Mexicans to join the agriculture sector. Like the immigrants of today, this workforce dealt with low pay. They also suffered scorn from American farmers who thought these people were coming to take their jobs. That rhetoric lives on today even though “American companies love Latin American labor,” as Barrios, the Southern Illinois University anthropologist, said.

Companies are usually trying to make as much money as possible. The wages and benefits they offer to workers impact how much these CEOs and corporate executives actually take home. The argument among researchers who’ve taken a close look at this issue is that if companies can avoid spending more on labor, then many will—even if that sacrifices worker safety and their human rights.

“If I were to say something like ‘let’s make sure that undocumented laborers have the same rights that American laborers have,’ well that would destroy the romance because that would not be conditions under which American construction companies would want these laborers,” Barrios told Earther over the phone. “They want them because they can pay them less. They want them because they can be less accountable to them.”

Climate change is set to increase both the frequency and intensity of natural disasters. Hurricanes are intensifying more rapidly (as Michael did), and storm surge is pushing flooding further inland as seas rise. Large wildfires have become more common as forests heat up and dry out. World leaders can take steps now to avoid a worst-case scenario, but a lot of damage is already baked into the Earth’s future. While infrastructure damage is to some extent unavoidable when extreme events like Hurricane Michael occur, the disruption to human life is up to the people in charge.

Just as officials can whip up evacuation plans, they can prepare a thorough response for what happens in the hours and days following a storm. We know companies hire undocumented workers to clean up the mess and that they won’t offer them the protective gear or training necessary to avoid accidents.

In Houston, the city and county have addressed this issue by requiring a $15 minimum wage, workers’ compensation insurance, and government health and safety training for workers rebuilding affordable housing and multifamily housing projects with federal disaster funds for Hurricane Harvey. The Build Houston Better program certainly doesn’t address all the issues this vulnerable workforce encounters, but it starts to normalize these benefits.

“We just have an incredible amount of work to do to organize and build power with low-income working people, with undocumented working people, and to make clear the real connections between climate change, and their health and safety, and the opportunities that we all have to really build a community that allows working-people to have good, safe jobs and leave an environment behind that people can live in,” said Garza.

Recovery takes time. Changing laws and community norms can take even longer.

For Mario, who is back home in New Orleans these days, the road to recovery continues. He visits the doctor two to three times a month and his injuries still cause him pain. He misses working, but he’s grateful he’s learned so much since that awful fall a year ago. He knows now that he has rights. Even without papers.

“This accident will help me for the rest of my life because there were things I didn’t know,” Mario said. “And now I can tell others who don’t know, too.”