Thousands of Latino immigrants began arriving to New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the city a decade ago. They were lured by promises of high wages and abundant work.
But once they got there, they faced another reality. Many became victims of wage theft and still haven’t gotten paid for the work they did to help rebuild New Orleans—even 10 years after the storm.
“The word was that there was a huge demand for workers to help with the reconstruction efforts,” said Santos Alvarado, an immigrant from Honduras who has temporary protected status in the United States. He watched the hurricane’s destruction unfold on television from his home in Dallas, Texas.
So great was the demand for workers that the Bush administration temporarily suspended immigration regulations that required employers to verify the immigration status of people who worked for them. In doing so, it allowed federal contractors to hire undocumented workers to help meet the demand.
Alvarado left Texas and headed to New Orleans toward the end of 2005. When he got there, he joined 2,000 people who worked cleaning hospitals, schools and government buildings. They all stayed in a hotel and worked 12-hour days.
After Alvarado left the hotel, he and three of his family members were hired by a contractor to remodel a home in New Orleans. It was then, he says, that he discovered contractors couldn’t be trusted. The contractor promised to pay them once they finished the job.
“We called him when we were done with the house, but he didn’t answer,” Alvarado said, adding that they later learned the contractor had left to Texas and had no intention of paying them. “He ended up owing us a total of $12,000 for the work that we did for about a month.”
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, Alvarado is among the thousands of workers who were taken advantage of by unscrupulous contractors and still haven’t gotten paid.
He told stories of how contractors picked up workers at street corners where Latino immigrants—many of them undocumented—congregate to seek work in the first few years after Hurricane Katrina. “By the end of the week, after they had done all the work, the contractors wouldn’t pay them and threatened to call the police or immigration,” he said.
In other cases, workers were threatened with violence when they asked contractors to pay them the amount they were owed. Some workers called the police to report violence and wage theft but were discouraged when nothing was done.
Many workers, including Alvarado, turned to the Congress of Day Laborers for help. The group was formed in December 2006 by the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice to fight back against wage theft and to defend rights of low-wage workers.
"The truth of the matter is, if you took the Latino presence out, this city would not have recovered the way it did,” said Luz Molina, a Loyola University law professor who founded the Workplace Justice Project.
“The reality is that wage theft is still happening,” said Fernando Lopez, an organizer with the Congress of Day Laborers. “Unfortunately, people are still being robbed and taken advantage of.”
“But I also think we’ve been able to gain some recognition in the city,” he added. “I feel like locals are actually thankful with a lot of immigrant workers who helped rebuild their homes.”
It’s difficult to calculate just how many workers were victims of wage theft in the first few years following Hurricane Katrina. But a survey by Interfaith Worker Justice gives an idea of how many workers were impacted.
Of the 218 workers that the group interviewed in New Orleans during the summer of 2006, almost half - 47 percent - said they didn’t receive all the pay they were owed and 55 percent said they didn’t received overtime pay.
The survey also found many workers handled and inhaled a slew of toxins in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Of the workers interviewed, 58 percent said they were exposed to dangerous substances, such as mold and contaminated water.
Alvarado said he was once tasked with cleaning up a school cafeteria filled with spoiled food but wasn’t given proper safety equipment or training.
“It smelled so bad that we could only be inside for no more than 30 minutes at a time,” he said. “We couldn’t stand the smell.”
Luz Molina, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, said one of the reasons why many contractors got away with worker rights violations following Hurricane Katrina was because the Bush administration suspended several labor laws, including one that set minimum salaries for workers.
“It was the wild west of labor enforcement,” she said.
In December 2005, after moving back to her home in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, Molina formed the Workplace Justice Project to provide free legal assistance for low-wage workers. She also helped form the Wage Claims Clinic in partnership with Catholic Charities and the Pro Bono Project.
The clinic is open to workers every Thursday night. It provides workshops and teaches workers how to draft a letter to demand unpaid wages. Workers are also given the opportunity to meet with law students and staff attorneys to discuss the possibility of filing a lawsuit against an employer.
In the last few years, the clinic has filed claims on behalf of workers to try to recover more than $700,000 in stolen wages.
Molina said that to this day, she still runs into workers who are waiting to get paid for work they did after Hurricane Katrina. But also troubling, she said, are the stories of Latino immigrant workers who were injured on the job and didn’t get medical care or those who were harassed by employers when they demanded to get paid for their work.
“For 10 years, we’ve heard horrible stories of contractors dehumanizing their workers,” she said. “And the truth of the matter is, if you took the Latino presence out, this city would not have recovered the way it did. There’s absolutely no way that there would’ve been enough workers.”