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Immigrant workers face wage theft and unsafe conditions as they rebuild Florida

Crucial to rebuilding communities after natural disasters, they are increasingly subject to exploitation and even human trafficking, advocates say.
Image: Cars and debris from washed away homes line a canal in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., Oct. 5, 2022, one week after the passage of Hurricane Ian.
Cars and debris from washed-away homes line a canal in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, a week after Hurricane Ian hit the state.Rebecca Blackwell / AP

Hurricane Ian’s wrath had barely subsided in Florida when advertisements for day laborers started popping up on phones across New York through online platforms like Telegram and WhatsApp.

The Spanish-language messages appeared to target recently arrived immigrants and asylum seekers who were desperate for work and had nowhere else to turn. 

Advocates said they are worried the migrants are becoming targets of fly-by-night businesses eager to exploit people for hard work and low wages.

“This looks and smells like human trafficking,” said Ariadna Phillips, a New York community organizer with South Bronx Mutual Aid. 

“They recruit them with these very flashy photographs, saying, 'You're going to make a bunch of money' and 'We're going to give you this great apartment to live in,'" Phillips added.

But when the workers arrive, it's a different story.

Less than two weeks after Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida and devastated dozens of communities, Phillips said she has already heard from several laborers whose wages have been docked to pay for their room and board. They told her that was not part of their agreement with the company.

Some of the people who were recruited had been in the United States for only a week, she said.

"I tell them to stay in New York because that's where they're going to be the safest," Phillips said. "We're a sanctuary city, and Florida was already trying to send people to Martha's Vineyard."

Gov. Ron DeSantis flew two planes of immigrants to the wealthy Massachusetts enclave last month as part of an effort to “transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations,” his communications director, Taryn Fenske, said in a statement at the time.

On Tuesday, DeSantis said at a news conference that three of four people arrested last week for "ransacking" communities following Hurricane Ian were illegal immigrants who should be immediately deported.

"They should not be here at all," he said.

His office did not return a request for comment.

On Friday, DeSantis encouraged Florida debris companies to hire locally.

"Many Floridians in Southwest Florida have had their businesses and livelihoods impacted by the storm and are looking for work — the private sector can help them get back on their feet by hiring locally for the length of recovery, which will support the local economy for at least the next six months," he said in a statement.

Experts say immigrants are much more likely to be victims of labor exploitation or suffer disproportionate economic devastation following a natural disaster.

"Not only are migrants the first to be affected by these extreme weather events, but they tend to be the first who try to rebuild," said Ariel Ruiz Soto, policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute.  

Immigrant workers from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala historically comprise the backbone of the recovery workforce that flocks to regions hit by natural disasters, he added. They helped to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Houston after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

A worker shovels sand out of a living room in Longport, N.J., after it was carried in by surge from Superstorm Sandy, on Nov. 2, 2012.
A worker shovels sand out of a living room in Longport, N.J., after it was carried in by surge from Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Immigrant day laborers participated in reconstruction work after Sandy destroyed areas of New York and New Jersey.Patrick Semansky / AP file

In a survey of 361 construction day laborers following Harvey, 72% were immigrants who had entered the country illegally, nearly half from Mexico and most of the remainder from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to 2018 study co-written by Soto.

Average hourly wages for day laborers ranged from $12 to $14 an hour, and 26% of respondents reported wage theft in the month following Harvey. Many also described not receiving information about job hazards or protective gear.

"These workers are more likely to be working under the table or for companies who are more likely to overlook rules," Soto said, exposing them to potentially dangerous work conditions.

In New York, work advertisements targeting immigrants offered $15 hourly rates, per diems, transportation to and from job sites, overtime and even accommodations, said Phillips of South Bronx Mutual.

One posting reviewed by NBC News included photos of furnished apartments or hotel rooms, complete with full kitchens for cooking meals. Another advertisement written in Spanish and posted by a Florida construction company asked interested workers to contact it through WhatsApp or Telegram and provide their name, age, country of origin and ability to travel.

A third by the same company said it was looking for 300 workers in Fort Myers, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Cape Coral and Port Charlotte.

Phillips said she has spoken with about a dozen immigrants who received the advertisements, and several reached out to her Tuesday through New York’s mutual aid community. They had been roaming the streets of Queens for hours, soaked by heavy rain and carrying all their belongings, in search of buses that were reportedly taking laborers to Florida for work opportunities in building trades.

Remembering "horror stories" of immigrants not being paid for work or being deported following previous natural disasters, Phillips rushed to Queens. She helped dissuade a handful of immigrants from traveling to Florida and encouraged them to instead seek help from local shelters and organizations. 

Several attempts to reach the company promoting work opportunities were unsuccessful.

"Promises are often not kept to these workers," said Saket Soni, executive director of Resilience Workforce, a New Orleans group that advocates for and monitors migrant workers following natural disasters. "I am concerned they are being recruited through fraud."

In the days following Ian, Resilience Workforce deployed staff members to Florida to observe work conditions on the ground. They were in contact with hundreds of laborers who had made their own way to places like Fort Myers, which bore the brunt of Ian's lashing, and waited outside Walmart and Home Depot in search of work.

Sacha Feinman, communications director of Resilience Force, said he personally witnessed workers "putting themselves in danger," including roofers who were not wearing safety gear and several workers sleeping inside a truck in a parking lot.

"It’s real," he said of worker exploitation. "It exists. It operates in the shadows."